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M Is for Mad Scientist

A shock of wild silver hair. Gleaming black goggles, in which electric splinters of corpse-resurrecting lightning enantiomorphically flash. A frightening rictus of insane triumph. An old lab coat covered in spinal fluid and foul-smelling powders. Surrounded by bubbling vats and shuffling quasimodos, the mad scientist claws his hands theatrically at the skies and lets out the cacophonous cackling of a man who — through science — has become like a god. 

Needless to say, the birth of science fiction also gave us the birth of mad scientists. (In truth, there’s something to be said for almost all scientists in
science fiction being mad. If scientists in science fiction were sane, there’d be little of the fantastic that we all hold so dear in the genre.) The eponymous protagonist of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — usually considered to be the first real scifi novel — was a man who strove to create life, but instead creates a monster. Following the Frankenstein mold, many mad scientists tinker with life and play god: H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau creates anthropomorphic half-human animals on a small tropical island; Herbert West, H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator creates a serum that brings the recently dead back to life… at a horrible, flesh-eating price. Robert Louis Stephenson provided another of that century’s famous mad scientists, the puritanical Dr. Jekyll, eager to suppress his base urges, develops a formula to turn himself into a purely good man, only to unleash a murderous, ape-like monster.

Even if you ignore the famous Hollywood versions of these stories,
film is similarly rich with wholly original cackling mad scientists.
Fritz Lang’s famous Metropolis was the first film (not counting Thomas Edison’s 1910 adaptation of Frankenstein)
to feature an honest-to-goodness, cinematic archetype of the mad
scientist in the form of Rotwang, who creates the machines that drive
the titular city… as well as the sleazy gynoid clone of the
kind-hearted Maria, who acts as his Lovebot.

From Metropolis on, science fiction film is filled with mad scientists. Without Doc Brown, there could be no flux capacitor, and therefore no Back to the Future trilogy. Without Dr. Strangelove,
there’d be no underground Cold War pleasure domes where women outnumber
lecherous politicians by a ratio of 10 to one. Without Seth Brundle,
there’d be no splicing Fly and human DNA-spliced into one
monstrous form. And without Dr. Tyrell of the Tyrell Corporation, there
could be no replicants… or Blade Runners.

The mad scientist is one of science fiction’s most timeless tricks.
Our concern over mad scientists spill into the real world: Look at the
fears of basement scientists creating biological contagions, or the
bio-ethics of genetically modified food. As our ability to “play God”
increases, the ethical debates — and the damage one twisted mind can
do — only increase, and the mad scientist goes from a quaint trope to
an ominous threat. It looks like we have all of human creativity to
come to be marveled and scared by them.

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