Whatever happened to the Mad Scientist?
Once upon a time he (always a male with ‘personality issues’) was everywhere in popular culture, usually holed up in some elaborate laboratory conducting bizarre experiments in the pursuit of ultimate truth. His methods were often ruthless, his motives arcane. The Mad Scientist was the dangerous loner with a disturbing ability to blow a hole in the fabric of reality.
Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein was the first personification of science’s disruptive potential. HG Wells and Jules Verne, the twin fathers of science fiction, then developed this archetype through memorable, and durable, characters such as Captain Nemo and The Invisible Man.
[Editor’s note. Neither Shakespeare’s laudanum-dealing apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, Johnson’s confidence tricksters in The Alchemist, nor Swift’s zany buffoons inhabiting the island of Lepanto in Gulliver’s Travels fit the true profile of Mad Scientist in this context – lacking the disruptive physical or ethical dilemmas presented by Shelley’s creation, itself drawing more on Faustian demagoguery than any preconceived idea of the scientist]
For five decades between 1930 and 1980 various Mad Professor types proliferated in print and on-screen such as Doctor X, Professor Quartermass, Dr. Strangelove, The Scorpion, Doctor Cyclops, Professor Brundle, who unfortunately turned himself into a human fly on more than one occasion (some scientists never learn), Dr Bruce Banner, Dr Tyrell, Dr Doom, Flash Gordon’s best mate Dr Zarkoff, and, of course, that sinister chocolate genius Willy Wonka.
The list goes on…
…and halts abruptly with the arrival of Doc Brown in his time travelling DeLorean. No one could possibly be intimidated by an ex-stoner, with a romantic twinkle in his eye and a chaotic eighties fashion sensibility. The general public immediately embraced this delightfully eccentric character as if to demonstrate that they were no longer afraid of science. After all, if people now live longer, have mobile communication devices and wear non-shrink garments. What’s to worry?
According to Fox TV’s Fringe, just about to enter its fifth and final season, there is still cause for concern. This imaginative series, inspired by the early David Cronenberg films, is deprived of the fear of the ‘A’ BOMB that injected a doomsday touch into the cold war proceedings (the bomb is still here by the way, as are biological weapons but nobody loses sleep over either of them anymore), so Fringe attempts to compensate by moving in the direction of quantum physics via string theory, alternate universes etc.
In the process it has accreted a great number of Mad Science types like barnacles on the hull of a sailing ship. One of the three central characters, the charming Walter Bishop, is a man who experimented on children back in the seventies in order to turn them into Super Soldiers of the Future. This was before he spent 17 years inside a mental institution.
Bishop also has an ‘evil’ duplicate on the ‘other side’ (don’t ask) where his ex-partner William Bell, wonderfully played by veteran Leonard Nimoy is also a resident mad scientist. Other guest stars such as Peter Weller (Robocop) and Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown) add star glamour to the hordes of Fringe science villains, who teleport, create race-profiling death-gas or experiment on themselves to produce bugs that devour humans from the inside out.
The series is (mostly) entertaining, amusing, filled with knowing pop culture references and, occasionally, innovative, BUT, in the ‘frisson of fear’ department it doesn’t hold a candle to the legend that is Professor Quatermass.
It was an American, Rod Serling, who invented high concept televisual paranoia back in the nineteen fifties when he adapted short stories by well known science fiction authors for the original Twilight Zone series. The BBC responded with something deeper, a long form sci-fi narrative, spread out over six hours and six weeks, something to which the writer Nigel Kneale, the man who penned the classic Year of the Sex Olympics, gave a pleasing rough-edged reality.
The first Quatermass was a man-on-the-run story, only the runner was an astronaut infected with a parasite from outer space. Such an idea may now seem trite but it was fresh and creepy at the time. Who knew what the space age would bring?
National newspapers covered stories of people traumatised by the show and questions were asked in Parliament about the Beeb’s transmission of such disturbing material.
The ever opportunistic Hammer films smelled profit and snapped up the rights to make a feature film for the international market. A process they repeated on the second and third series. For the modern audience, raised on high speed editing and smooth CGI these movies play a little clunky but still…
… just a little disturbing.
Insectoid Martian colonizers buried for millions of years under an East End tube station, hauntings by ghosts of extra-terrestrials, biological food vats that turn out to be alien life forms attempting to re-terraform the planet, showers of small meteors filled with mind altering substances, and silent uniformed men in black helmets guarding the chemical plant at the Newtown on Winnerton flats.
I could go on: no ‘meaningful’ relationships, no love triangles, no struggle for resonance and very little humour, just the irascible Professor Quatermass bulldozing his way through ranks of authority figures until he gets to the unthinkable truth.
Cold and ruthless speculative fiction, stripped down to the bone in order to terrify an unsuspecting public.
There was a disastrous fourth series (in colour) produced in the seventies for the ITV network which reduced the Prof to a sappy old man (played by Sir John Mills) searching for his granddaughter amidst neo-pagan youth cults. Hammer declined to bid for the rights.
Forty years down the line we may soon be reaching an end to television fantastique. The modern audience has seen it all, heard it all and bought the branded t shirt. The only thing that is truly terrifying is the rate at which television producers devour and re-work story material for their conveyor belts.
It’s an open secret in Hollywood that Production teams now scour the internet for fan-fiction based on their shows, in the hope that the public will come up with something unexpected. So far Fringe has managed to squeeze a few new twists from the old Mad Scientist routine in its eighty odd episodes but the end is almost nigh.
I recommend an irritable pipe smoker with bad facial hair and no sex life. Professor Bernard Quatermass, your moment awaits.