Mad Scientists come in two varieties. There are scientists who are just, well, a little nuts. These guys operate at the intersection of madness and ambition, but not all of them are eee-vil. There’s Dr. Emmett Brown from the Back to the Future movies: he’s like the poster child for ADD science; Sir Tiberius Foote in Help (“with this ring I could…dare I say it? …rule the world!”); and Professor Calculus in the Tintin books (an absent minded professor, to say the least). They’re basically benign if a little wacky. It’s part of their charm.
The eeee-vil guys all seem to suffer from the same malady: it’s not the scientific experiments that earn them their comeuppance. It’s not even hubris (though hubris helps). It’s failure of imagination.
Daedalus is working in his shop in the basement of King Minos’s palace, trying to finish up a side project: wings. He wants to test them before he shows his patron. But his son, Icarus, sneaks into the workshop to try the wings out. Which we know isn’t going to end well.
Anyone who has raised kids knows: you don’t leave your work, particularly the dangerous work, out where your kids can get at it. Failure of imagination, not thinking a project through to its possible end.
Many mad scientists aren’t crazy so much as obsessed. Let’s look at a few, shall we?
- The classic mad scientist is, of course, Victor Frankenstein. He’s obsessed with creating life, in part because of the trauma of his mother’s death shortly before he goes off to college. Dr. Frankenstein is so wrapped up in the idea of animating–or re-animating–dead tissue, that he doesn’t think about what’s going to happen after he succeeds. When he does succeed he’s so flipped out that he runs for the hills. Poor nameless monster: Dad takes one look at him and scarppers. (I got a whole short story out of this: “Wille,” in which Herr Doktor Frankenstein raises the monster as his own.)
- Dr. Henry Jekyll is a very good man who cannot bear by his own less-than-good impulses. He’s obsessed with finding a way to control them. The result is a potion which splits off Dr. Jekyll’s dark side into a whole personality of its own: chemically-induced multiple personality disorder. What, you mess with brain chemistry, don’t bother with any testing, just chug the stuff, and then are dismayed that there are undesirable side effects? Dope.
- Doctor Moreau, of Island fame, has a mania for progress, so much so that he doesn’t care who he hurts. When who-he-hurts are animals he operates on in order to turn them into something closer to human, it doesn’t take a mad scientist to figure out that a day of reckoning will come. That’s really the classic plot curve of the mad scientist story, isn’t it: tunnel vision leads to disaster.
- The photo above is Humphrey Bogart in The Return of Dr. X, but (believe it or not) he’s not the mad scientist. That honor belongs to Dr. Flegg, a hematologist who brings Dr. X back from the dead in order to test his new artificial blood. Law of unintended consequences says: because of the artificial blood, Dr. X will become addicted to a rare sort of human blood. Flegg made Doctor X into a vampire. You can bet that wasn’t on his To Do list.
- Finally: okay, John Hammond isn’t a scientist, he’s a billionaire who hires scientists to create dinosaurs from DNA found in amber-trapped flies. He wants to build Jurassic Park, rival Disneyland, and make a pile of money (this is in the book–in the film he’s a little nicer, but still obsessed with making those dinosaurs). What could possibly go wrong?
As a matter of fact, if there was a Society of Mad Scientists, their logo might contain that as a motto “What could possibly go wrong?” Haven’t any of these guys had ever seen a movie?