JD Fen­nell on the en­dur­ing ap­peal of mad sci­en­tists

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It’s ali­i­i­i­ive! Au­thor JD Fen­nell cel­e­brates the en­dur­ing ap­peal of the mad sci­en­tist.

The “mad sci­en­tist” has long played a piv­otal part in sto­ries, de­light­ing and hor­ri­fy­ing gen­er­a­tions with das­tardly and some­times not-so-das­tardly deeds. One man’s de­sire for power us­ing sci­en­tific wizardry is no stranger to fa­bles. Mad sci­en­tists lurk in the pages of our favourite books, and shine brightly on cel­lu­loid and dig­i­tal film. We can’t get enough of them. Ar­guably, the ear­li­est in­car­na­tion is Christo­pher Mar­lowe’s Dr Faus­tus, a tor­tured scholar who fails to take his own life and calls upon the Devil for greater knowl­edge and magic pow­ers. The Devil of­fers him pow­ers in re­turn for Faust’s soul. It’s a clas­sic tale, which doesn’t end well, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons.

Skip­ping for­ward 300 years, travel-writer, wife and mother, Mary Woll­stonecraft Shel­ley writes gothic clas­sic, Franken­stein, the story of a young sci­en­tist who cre­ates a grotesque mon­ster con­structed from the body parts of corpses. Charm­ing chap, and of­ten un­fairly de­picted in Hol­ly­wood as an im­moral ge­nius. Re­mem­ber Colin Clive’s hammy yet ter­ri­fy­ing por­trayal? “It’s alive! It’s alive!” he screams, as his mon­ster comes to life. Chill­ing and un­for­get­table.

As a young­ster, Sher­lock Holmes was my de­tec­tive hero. I was never more ex­cited to see him pit­ted against his equal and arch­en­emy, Pro­fes­sor Mo­ri­arty. Holmes de­scrib­ing Mo­ri­arty to Wat­son: “He is an ex­tremely pow­er­ful crim­i­nal mas­ter­mind who is purely adept at com­mit­ting any atroc­ity to per­fec­tion with­out los­ing any sleep over it.” There is a burn­ing re­sent­ment be­tween these two, yet Mo­ri­arty is fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause of his ad­mi­ra­tion for Holmes.

A sim­i­lar re­la­tion­ship ex­ists be­tween two other very fa­mous sci­en­tists. Doc­tor Who has had mo­ments of mad­ness over many re­gen­er­a­tions, none more so than the War Doc­tor, played briefly and won­der­fully by John Hurt. How­ever, the Mas­ter goes above and beyond by forg­ing re­la­tion­ships with dis­parate alien races, us­ing them to com­mit geno­cide be­fore wip­ing them out and at­tempt­ing to de­stroy the uni­verse. Still the Doc­tor re­tains a soft spot for him [or her], and vice versa. On cre­at­ing the Mas­ter, pro­ducer Barry Letts said, “One felt that the Mas­ter wouldn’t re­ally have liked to elim­i­nate the Doc­tor. The Doc­tor was the only per­son like him in the whole uni­verse, and in a funny sort of way they were part­ners in crime.”

The man­tle of su­pe­rior ge­nius isn’t re­stricted to straight men. Nor should it be. Di­ver­sity in the mad sci­en­tist busi­ness is lim­ited, but boy, does it crackle. Case in point: Rocky Hor­ror’s sweet trans­ves­tite from Tran­sex­ual, Tran­syl­va­nia, Dr Frank N Furter. His nine-inch heels crushed the mould of dusty aca­demics in shabby white lab coats, in favour of the filthy-gor­geous glam­our of ruby red lippy, fish­nets and bodices. At last the world of the evil ge­nius was given a makeover.

From one glam­our to an­other, Philip Pull­man’s His Dark Ma­te­ri­als tril­ogy has one of the most di­a­bol­i­cal sci­en­tists, the ir­re­sistible Marisa Coul­ter. She is an el­e­gant and cool-minded so­phis­ti­cate, de­scribed by fel­low an­tag­o­nist and suitor, Me­ta­tron, as be­ing cold, cruel with a vi­cious prob­ing cu­rios­ity, a lust for power and a cesspit of mo­ral filth. Marisa is a com­pelling and bril­liant char­ac­ter.

So there we have some ex­am­ples of why the mad sci­en­tist re­mains close to our hearts. Who doesn’t love a lab-coated nar­cis­sis­tic, sci­en­tific ge­nius-come-crim­i­nal mas­ter­mind with a side­line in psy­chopa­thy and a de­sire for god-like power? They threaten the world and keep he­roes on their toes. Long may they wreak havoc!


Sleeper: The Red Storm by JD Fen­nell is out 25 Oc­to­ber from Dome Press.

Peter Cush­ing as mad sci­en­tist Vic­tor Franken­stein in 1957.

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