They Called Me Mad!

April 8th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness. — Aristotle

Why does the Mad Scientist archetype persist in modern entertainment? It seems to be a bit old fashioned, and often outdated. What’s the point of writing a character that works by themselves attempting to achieve any kind of technological advancement that in all likelihood would instead be reached first by a team of engineers working with corporate funding?

Several reasons. Imagination. Lack of limits. And, frankly, they are entertaining.

The Mad Scientist thinks the things that no one else thinks. They aren’t constrained by a boss, or or by any limits that they haven’t placed on themselves. And any limit placed upon them by God, Nature, or anything else? Well, that’s merely an obstacle to be overcome!

A Mad Scientist, whether arrayed in literature, movies, or music, enables a creator’s imagination to run wild. And the madness itself is a near-perfect plot hole. Where did that crazy idea come from, what could possibly have motivated them to do what they did?

“I’ll show them! I’ll show the world! Mwaahaahaahahahaaaaaaa!”

The Mad Scientist is exciting, and often times, simultaneously frightening. Who hasn’t felt the urge to cut loose and do something wild and crazy? What held you back? Civilized cultural mores, laws, morals. For whatever reason, you didn’t. And good thing, too. I’m no anarchist; I feel some rules are useful.

But that’s what fiction is for. To reflect pieces of ourselves that we can identify with, without our needing to act upon it. We don’t need reality, with its dark gritty edges. There’s enough of that around in our lives. We want the wild and crazy when we escape. We want to laugh maniacally, to throw the switch and consequences be damned!

The Mad Scientist allows us to see different worlds, or sometimes the same world with a skewed angle. I want to watch a movie about a teenager that rolls around on his skateboard and aspires to play guitar, but can’t identify with his humdrum parents. Wait. No, I don’t. What I want is to see Christopher Lloyd convince him to drive a silver DeLorean DMC-12 at precisely 88 miles per hour and thus be catapulted 30 years into the past!

Who wants to watch a man mope about, distraught over his lost love, who died in childbirth giving birth to his rival’s son? Not this guy. Who wants to see Rotwang make a robot based on his lost love, then make it emulate the grown child’s love, so as to destroy the rival’s plans? Well, anyone who hasn’t seen the restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, needs to do so. And right soon.

The Mad Scientist sees things that others can’t, or won’t. Nikola Tesla is considered one of the principle founding figures of modern electrical engineering and inventing. The man was polite, believed in gender-equality and free energy. He also only stayed in hotel rooms with room numbers divisible by three and claimed to have a wild white pigeon as a life-long companion. Tesla has reoccurred in multiple movies and books, because using a real-life Mad Scientist ties the concept into the real world in a definable way.

And seriously, what self-respecting Mad Scientist after the 1930’s does not have a Tesla coil or two in the lab, throwing electricity about willy-nilly?

The Mad Scientist also works as the natural expression of the hubris of man, and is used often as a criticism of post-humanism. Victor von Frankenstein wanted to conquer death, but instead lost his brother, his wife/cousin, his father, his work, and ultimately his life in contest with his twisted creation.

The previously mentioned Rotwang creates a working robot, yet instead of pursuing any form of noble goals, he uses his robot to incite chaos in his city. In his mad quest for revenge, he eventually falls to his death. Rotwang’s appearance sparked the classic visual for the Mad Scientist, with his lab coat, crazy hair, and big rubber gloves.

Kimiko “Thunderbolt” Ross from the webcomic Dresden Codak could simultaneously represent both complement and criticism to post-humanism. An expert in robotics and time travel with an obsession for the Singularity, Ross’s efforts at one point nearly end the world. While it is revealed later that the event in question would improve life rather than end it, that wasn’t known to Ross at the time. While she initially claims to not care about the death of humanity, she nevertheless nearly dies saving her friends.

The Mad Scientist can serve as a warning: mucking about with science, regardless of motive, often leads to tragedy! Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Moreau, and many others try to improve humanity, but shortcuts often lead to suffering and cinematic violence. Dr. Horrible only wants to be in the Evil League of Evil, yet his freeze-ray only leads to heartbreak.

In short, whether hero or villain, the Mad Scientist is a highly enjoyable archetype that needs to continue to be employed so that we, the viewing public, can have our lust for entertainment slaked and possibly our imagination fueled. Anything is possible.

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