JD Fennell on the enduring appeal of mad scientists
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!
“WHO DOESN’T LOVE A LABCOATED GENIUSCOME-CRIMINAL MASTERMIND?”
Sleeper: The Red Storm by JD Fennell is out 25 October from Dome Press.
Peter Cushing as mad scientist Victor Frankenstein in 1957.