if you've been reading ComicsAlliance for a while, you might recall that I am a dude with some strong opinions about the Scooby Doo franchise, and to be honest, the main reason for that is Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. This week, the second half of the first season finally made it to DVD with a fourteen-episode set called Crystal Cove Curse, two discs worth of pretty compelling reasons why it's one of the best animated series in recent memory. Seriously. What it really comes down to is character. Mystery Inc. is one of the first times in the 43-year history of the franchise that anyone's been allowed to develop the gang as characters, and it's something that changes the entire tone of the show.Before Mystery Inc., they were really just archetypes with few additional twists added for the sake of gags, like brainy Velma who always lost her glasses. But with Mystery Inc., the characters are rebuilt from the ground up, with individual motivations, new relationships and interaction with each other that go beyond one person telling another how the mysterious fog was really created by dry ice. They even get actual families that exist for a reason beyond providing a rich uncle with a haunted ski resort. They're fully realized for the first time.

That plays out in the format of the show, too. It's structured so that there's a single, overarching mystery that runs through the entire series, allowing those characters to build and change over time, but there are still individual mysteries that follow the traditional formula to the letter, with all the goofy fun that goes along with it. In fact, as far as the individual mysteries go, Mystery Inc. embraces that goofiness and takes it to an entirely new level.

For example, there's an episode called "The Dragon's Secret," where the reveal of how the masked crook was fooling everyone into thinking he was a ghost who could levitate and shoot lightning out of his hands is explained by the fact that he has a jetpack and "homemade Tesla coils" strapped to his hands.

When this is revealed, the gang mutters "of course!" in unison, despite the fact that the existence of jetpacks was never mentioned before and is never mentioned again.

It's not exactly what you'd call a "fair play" mystery, but there are a couple of reasons why it doesn't have to be, and they boil down to the idea that in the grand scheme of things, this "mystery" doesn't really matter. Very few of the individual mysteries do; they're meant to be fun, to give the gang entertaining things to do and react to. Even in the episode itself, the jetpack-powered "ghost" isn't the primary focus -- that would be the girl on the right in green and how she scoops up Shaggy after he breaks up with Velma. The crooks in masks are just the framework supporting the larger plot unfolding in the series, and that's the one mystery that does matter.

That structure, like almost everything else in the show, is brilliant. It allows the show to be funny and sinister and thrilling all at the same time, and sets up a pattern where the lies are exposed and the bad guys brought to justice in a way that's harmless and fun, right up until the last episode where that same structure takes a surprisingly heartbreaking turn.

It's almost impossible to talk about what really makes this show so great without getting into some MAJOR SPOILERS, so if you haven't seen the show, proceed with caution.

The premise that gives the show its name and sets it apart from the rest of the franchise is that Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby aren't the first group of mystery solving teens in Crystal Cove. There was an original Mystery Incorporated that, complete with their own talking animal sidekick, was up to some serious meddling 20 years ago -- a 1992 that looks suspiciously like the '50s. The problem? They all disappeared, never to be seen again, and no one knows why.

That's the thread that unites the series, and in terms of the grand metaphor that sits at the heart of Scooby-Doo -- kids defying their fear in order to search for the truth -- it's done phenomenally well. The knowledge that something bad happened to people who were doing the exact same thing that they're doing now adds an element of danger, particularly since they don't know what it was. It's the Terror of the Unknown that can only be fought by discovering the Truth.

And in this case, the gang learns that the truth has its own consequences.

There's another theme of the series that's emphasized in Mystery Inc., too, the idea that it always comes down to kids looking for truth and adults lying to them, something I've discussed before. Without fail, almost every adult in the show is lying to them (with the notable exception of legendary writer and even more legendary angry person Harlan Ellison, who appears as himself earlier in the series as the show's tribute to celebrity guests of the past). Adults are either outright liars or complicit in some kind of deception, and considering that this is a show that gives the gang parents for the first time, the consequences are often personal. Especially when the most powerful person in town turns out to be the biggest liar of all.

For me, it's really interesting that the second half of the first season comes to focus so much on Fred. He's always struck me as sort of bland and boring, a cardboard cutout lead character put in because the Concerned Parents of the '60s wouldn't like a scruffy beatnik as the central figure of a cartoon, even if he was the one who owned a talking dog. But whether Mystery Inc. took that blandness as an opportunity to develop him anew, or whether there was just a hint of depth there that I never noticed as a kid, he somehow ended up being the most complex and emotionally affecting character of Mystery Incorporated.

In the first half of the season, Fred is given a love of traps that comes off as about as one-note as Shaggy being hungry all the time. It's built for gags, giving him a funny obsession that so that he can be cheerily oblivious to Daphne's professions of love because he so focused on high-tensile steel or the latest in spring-loaded net technology. But as the show goes on, and it's revealed piece by piece that Fred's father has told him that his mother abandoned their family, his obsession with keeping things from getting away from him takes on a whole new light. It shifts from something that's pure comedy to a joke with an undercurrent of genuine sadness that grows ever larger as the truth about his life starts to come out.

The series is full of some great voice acting, including work from Lewis Black, Vivica Fox, Gary Cole, Patrick Warburton (who is contractually obligated to appear in every animated series produced in the 21st Century) as the core cast, but Welker deserves a special nod for his work, especially in the season finale. He's been voicing Fred for over 40 years, and he still manages to deliver something new in this series, hitting the emotional notes that he needs to sell the scene.

The whole thing ends in a pretty dark place, with Mystery Inc. disbanded, Shaggy packed off to military school and Fred's life in absolute ruins, but it's not the kind of darkness that feels cheap. As strange as it might sound for a show about a talking dog debunking ghosts, it's treated with a maturity and intelligence that just makes it good. It earns its darkness, and shows it in the context of the framework it's built so that it has actual meaning for the characters.

But even though that's where it ends -- and where it's going to stay until the second season finally kicks off in May -- the DVD set isn't all doom and gloom. In fact, it's got what might be the single funniest piece of the Scooby-Doo franchise ever made: "The Mystery Solvers Club State Finals."

This thing is amazing. It's the only episode in the season that has absolutely nothing to do with the overarching plot, but it is pure genius. The premise is that there's a competition among teenage meddlers, and when all the teenagers get kidnapped, Scooby has to team up with the other sidekicks from the various knockoffs of the Scooby-Doo formula that Hanna-Barbera produced after the show's initial success: Jabberjaw, Speed Buggy, Captain Caveman and The Funky Phantom.

It's the team-up that I have wanted for years, and when you throw in the fact that it also involves the Foxy Brown-esque Angel Dynamite and a bespectacled administrator who transforms herself into a hard-driving, hell-raising vixen in the grand Russ Meyer tradition, it is just the best. It's even an exception to my long-standing rule about the supernatural never existing in the universe of Scooby-Doo, because it's set up specifically to address that concern.

In short -- too late, I know -- it's a fantastic set of episodes. The only problem I have with it is one of format: Crystal Cove Curse was released as "Part 2" of Season One, and while I generally prefer to get full seasons, fourteen episodes that you can pick up on for around $15 isn't a bad deal. The problem is that Part 1 does not actually appear to exist. Instead, the previous 12 episodes are collected on three other DVDs with a different style of numbering, which means that the only way you can get the whole season is to buy Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, and Part 2. It doesn't make a bit of sense.

Hopefully it'll all be sorted out in time for everyone to catch up before the second season, but the weirdness in format doesn't change the fact that the episodes within are the best Scooby-Doo has ever been. It's one of those rare things that manages to bring back something from your childhood and make it even better than your memories, and that's no easy feat.

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