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26/11/2014

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Doctor Who’s mad scientists

We must see through the stereotypes, argues Lindy Orthia

Mad scientists in television fiction have a bad reputation among science’s defenders. They are seen to impugn science’s honour in the public eye, because they commit dastardly deeds in the name of scientific progress. Even people who are critical of science usually see mad scientists in this light—as manifestations of a legitimately negative public opinion, inspired by science’s many real-world misdeeds and mistakes.

But not all mad scientist characters fit that ideological mould. Too often, we make assumptions about a television stereotype’s meaning for science without looking carefully at what the show is really saying. In my research I analyse scientist characters in the television program Doctor Who, and some of them give us good reason to challenge the received wisdom that ‘mad scientist’ equals ‘anti-science’.

Mad scientists of the mid-70s

If you’re interested in mad scientist, the best period of Doctor Who to study is the mid-1970s, when Tom Baker played ‘the Doctor’, the show’s scientist hero. Several Doctor Who stories from that time reinvented a classic mad scientist tale.

Dr Mehendri Solon, for example, is Doctor Who’s version of Frankenstein, in the 1976 story The Brain of Morbius, Solon exhibits all the trappings of a classic mad scientist. He lives in a candlelit castle, complete with creaking doors and lightning flashes. In his laboratory, which is full of bubbling chemicals, he keeps a brain alive in a vat. That brain belongs to the evil warlord Morbius, and Solon is trying to make a new body for him out of bits.

In The Talons of Weng-Chiang from 1977, we encounter another mad scientist, Magnus Greel, and another literary reference – to the legend of Faust. Greel is the Mephistopheles-like character, who builds a laboratory in the cellar of a Victorian London theatre and therein extracts the ‘life force’ of young women to keep himself alive. He pretends to be a god to enslave a Faust-like magician, who captures the women in exchange for better conjuring tricks.

And in Planet of Evil from 1975, we meet the equivalent of Jekyll in Professor Sorenson, a scientist who turns into a homicidal beast while trying to harness the energy of antimatter.

Science triumphant

Any superficial reading would name Solon, Greel and Sorenson as stereotypical mad scientists who are showing the audience how dangerous science can be. After all, that’s how we usually interpret Frankenstein, Faust and Jekyll.

But look a little deeper. These characters have been set up by Doctor Who’s scriptwriters to take a hit, so that science can emerge triumphant. The Doctor exposes all three of them as somehow not being proper scientists.

He reveals that Solon abandoned the prestigious medical post that had earned him great respect, and joined the evil ‘cult of Morbius’. The script blames this religious-political conversion – coupled with his rejection of establishment science – for his transgression of moral boundaries.

Meanwhile the Doctor slanders Greel as a ‘scientific ignoramus’, and his science as ‘so-called technology’, ‘a technological cul-de-sac’, and ‘the twisted lunacy of a scientific dark age’. In this he evicts Greel from the community of scientists, showing ‘real’ science to be progressive and positive, and not responsible for Greel’s evil.

And he characterises Sorenson’s homicidal transformation as an illness, the result of antimatter ‘infection’, which interferes with Sorenson’s capacity for rational scientific thought. Once Sorenson recovers his health and rational faculties, he resumes his altruistic scientific research program with the Doctor’s blessing. Science, in the end, emerges positive and untainted after all.

Not all mad scientist tales deliver this kind of pro-science message, even in Doctor Who. But to truly understand what television teaches us about science, we must challenge our well-worn assumptions and see through the stereotypes.                  

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Dr Lindy Orthia
Dr Lindy Orthia is at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University, Canberra
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