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John Scalzi – Are Mad Scientists Unfairly Maligned?

I have something a little different for you today, folks. With Halloween coming up, a lot of horror-oriented science fiction films will be screened so that we can be spooked and scared on that creepiest of nights. But what if those films contained prejudices? Stereotypes? Unfair representations? Would it change the way you look at these films?

It just might. And with me today is someone who wants to fight against those stereotypes. Sir, please tell the folks at home who you are.

A: I am Dr. Hermann von Gliebstein, public relations director for the International Society of Mad Scientists. I’m also occasionally the despot of Gjirokastër, which incorrect maps will tell you is an Albanian province.

Q: Just occasionally?

A: It depends on whether my terrifying army of laser-wielding robot giraffes is functional or not. They’re notoriously finicky.

Q: I see. Why giraffes?

A: Quite obviously because robot monkeys were already taken. But this is not about me. It’s about mad scientists in general.

Q: Quite right. Now, tell us what your problem is with movies that have mad scientists in them.

A: I think it’s simple, don’t you? Have you ever seen a positive portrayal of a mad scientist in a movie? You have not. Because they don’t exist. It’s always mad scientist creates horrible monster, mad scientist raises the undead, mad scientist unleashes plague upon mankind, everyone dies, blah blah blah. It’s awful.

Q: Give an example.

A: Well, here’s an easy one: Re-Animator . Here’s the story of a brilliant young medical researcher, Herbert West, who does what? Learns to thwart death. With science. And isn’t that the goal of all medical science? Sure, he’s fervent about his work, and arrogant, but if you learned how to reanimate dead tissue, wouldn’t you be a little arrogant? But instead of portraying West as the Nobel Prize-winning character he will certainly be, he’s this creepy little bug-eyed dude skulking around in a basement. And that’s just wrong.

Q: To be fair, the things he brings back to life turn out to be evil flesh-rending zombies.

A: I’m not saying the science was perfect. But that’s no reason to paint him as mad right from the start. That’s Hollywood for you. And even if the scientist is not mad from the start, they often become mad during the course of the film.

Q: Like?

A: Like in The Fly . Seth Brundle starts off smart and eccentric, but by the end he’s crashing through walls, kidnapping people and vomiting acid. That’s just not fair.

Q: Well, he was turning into a fly at the time he did all that.

A: Don’t try to excuse the filmmakers, man. Have you ever turned into a fly? I have. I hardly vomited acid on anyone. So I know that film has got it completely wrong. Hollow Man is another example: Scientist starts off as nothing more than arrogant, and eventually turns into a murdering psychotic molester. Just because he becomes invisible? As if.

Q: Perhaps they were trying to make a larger statement. You know, like invisibility is a metaphor for lack of responsibility, and that lack corrupts judgment.

A: Oh, please. Have you seen Hollow Man? Suggesting it has metaphor is a little much, don’t you think? And again, it just doesn’t track with reality. I know scientists who have worked with invisibility. They haven’t gone nuts.

Q: So you know real invisible men?

A: Of course. There’s one in this room right now.

Q: That explains all that mysterious poking.

A: Dieter! Stop that!

(Disembodied Voice): Sorry.

A: My apologies.

Q: It’s all right. What about when mad scientists are played for laughs? Isn’t that a positive portrayal of a sort?

A: I don’t know what you mean.

Q: Well, like in Young Frankenstein . Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frederick Frankenstein is a hoot.

A: He most certainly is not. That role an affront to scientists, evil or otherwise. It’s the Jar Jar Binks of mad scientist roles. There’s so much wrong with it it’s hard to talk about it without getting worked up.

Q: I apologize.

A: It’s all right. I’ll just take it out on the Gjirokastër villagers later. After I fix the giraffes.

Q: Well, but, see. Isn’t that just the problem? I know you mad scientists are upset that you’re portrayed in movies as erratic, evil characters using unethical tactics to achieve your goals, but, in fact isn’t that what you are?

A: I’m not following you.

Q: Take you, sir. Using your laser-wielding robot giraffe army to subjugate a province of Albania. Doesn’t that seem, well, a little extreme? And what separates you morally from, say, the character of Syndrome in The Incredibles, who uses science to get back at, and even kill, the people he felt snubbed him as a boy? Isn’t the portrayal of mad scientists in movies, in fact, totally accurate?

A: You wouldn’t be saying that if I had a laser-wielding robot giraffe here now.

Q: Possibly not. But I’m saying that now.

(Disembodied Voice): Actually, I brought a laser-wielding robot giraffe with me. It’s in the room. Just, you know, invisible.

A: Excellent! Fire, Dieter! Fire!

(Disembodied Voice): All right.

A: Aaaaaaaiiiiieeeeeee!

Q: Wow. Of all the people I expected your invisble laser-wielding robot giraffe to vaporize, Dr. Hermann von Gliebstein was not one of them.

(Disembodied Voice): Well, see. My parents live in Gjirokastër.

Q: Thank you for saving my life.

(Disembodied Voice): You’re welcome.

Q: Now please stop poking me.

(Disembodied Voice): Sorry.

scalzi.pngWinner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also the editor of METAtropolis, an audiobook anthology that debuts this week on His column appears every Thursday.

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