1879: Scientist or Engineer? Who’s Mad Here Really?


If you have not seen season three of Penny Dreadful, or the Doom Patrol episode of Titans, you perhaps should stop reading at the end of this sentence. I will be discussing both of these in this blog entry. You have been warned.

The mad scientist has been a staple of horror movies since there’s been horror movies. The archetype goes back quite a long time before the invention of cinema, as we recently discussed in Lurid Literature. But what really makes a mad scientist a mad scientist? This is a subject worth exploring for 1879, as the mad scientist makes for a potentially interesting villain or foe.

Let’s start off with one of the more basic problems. Is this person a mad scientist, or just a mad engineer? Are they working from basic principles, and trying to uncover new knowledge, or are they just trying to build a giant death ray so they can take over London? Where does their madness lie? Are they ignoring safety measures and human-subjects protocols in their quest to push the boundaries of human understanding, or are they just ticked off at some perceived social injustice or personal slight?

Captain Nemo stands as an example, I would argue, of the mad engineer. Oh yes, he’s captain of a submarine in an era when submarines were not exactly commonplace, but look past that. Verne was quite clear – Nemo designed the Nautilus himself. He advanced the technology considerably past the Hunley, with its manually-cranked screws, and leapt boldly to a vessel powered by electricity, holding a regenerating atmosphere, and capable of diving far deeper than the Hunley ever dared. But was he a mad scientist? He used the Nautilus to explore the ocean, discovering new species, seeing parts of the world no human ever had before. He catalogued the depths, mapped the ocean floor, and created a new way of living for his crew. But what was the primary purpose of the Nautilus? How did the window characters get on board?

Nemo built the Nautilus, and commanded it, first and foremost as a warship. He used its ramming prow to sink whaling vessels. Nemo saw himself as a defender of the oceans from the rapacity of mankind, and employed his greatest creation not to discover, but to protect and to attack. His madness lay in his grudge against humanity, for its mishandling of the oceans, its arrogance in regarding the sea as a source of infinite resources free for the taking without boundary. In the modern day, we know far too well the hazards of overfishing. New York City used to have oysterbeds. There might still be a few oysters out there in the shallow waters off Manhattan, but nobody in their right mind would eat them. We have used the ocean as a garbage dump, to the point where we have poisoned a major source of our food supply. Anybody remember the problems with mercury in seafood? Those never went away. Mercury is a metal. It takes decades to settle and chelate out of the population. We just don’t talk about it nowadays. Nemo may have been right in his assessment of the problem – the greed and wilful blindness of humanity – but he was mad in his methods, killing the whalers instead of changing the culture that demanded whale products. If he’d marketed the lighting he used aboard the Nautilus, the demand for whale oil for lamps would have plummeted, quite probably putting the whalers out of business. That’s more or less what happened with the advent of gaslight, carbon arc lamps, and the incandescent bulb.

So what constitutes a mad scientist? As it happens, I’ve seen two examples just recently.: Dr. Victor Frankenstein, in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and Dr. Niles Calder, in DC’s Titans. What makes them scientists, and what makes them mad?

Dr. Frankenstein is a redevelopment of the classic mad scientist, the one who in Mary Shelley’s novel became so wrapped up in the quest for knowledge that he ignored boundaries – or, in the words of Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” In the novel, Dr. Frankenstein rushes into the idea of galvanic resurrection, and brings a creature to life with no thought of the moral implications, or the religious issues that form so much of the allegory and central debate. In Penny Dreadful, he goes two steps worse. Faced with the failure of his first creation, or at least its failure to conform to what he thought the result should be, he makes another. This one is more pliant, more malleable, more trusting, has less initiative, and Frankenstein pays considerably more attention to it than his first – until the first returns and rips the poor second one in half before his horrified creator’s eyes. Does Frankenstein learn a lesson here? No, he most certainly does not. He accedes to the creature’s demand for a mate, commits a murder (granted, of a woman with tuberculosis who only had days left to live, but still …) to get the necessary fresh body, and raises Lily from Brona’s ashes, only to have the plan go horribly awry when, like Pygmalion (and the references are not subtle here), he falls in love with his creation, only to have that lead to destruction. Frankenstein ignores social boundaries, personal boundaries, and ethical boundaries in his quest to understand the processes of life and death and gain power over them. In the end, his arrogance leads to his attempt to remake his third creation, only to finally have some last glimmer of humanity flicker up at the last instant, and lead him to realize the dreadful misogyny and overweening arrogance that guided him, and overcome it long enough to let Lily go, to be her own person and not a doll that he can rewind when its actions don’t suit him. His partners in crime have no such realization, and I wonder what they said when they found out he turned Lily loose, after all the effort they’d gone to, after the three men had jointly agreed that Lily, the independent woman, needed to be brought to heel and turned into a proper, respectable, compliant, submissive wind-up with no mind of her own, or at least very little mind left after Victor’s injection.

In Titans, Dr. Niles Calder is initially a somewhat helpful, if tyrannical, presence. He has taken in people who have experienced truly dreadful events, and done what he can to give them a semblance of a life. But his will is writ large across the inhabitants of the house, his dominance exerted in rules that cannot be questioned and are enforced even when he is away and not expected to return until after the evidence has long since disappeared. His patients are not cured. They remain experimental subjects, being studied to yield improvements on the techniques that left them half alive, still existing but unable to have a life. Cliff’s mournful sighs as he watches Raven enjoying her meal, Larry’s bitter “if only” when asked if he’s invisible under the bandages, Rita’s determined poise and the effort she goes to just to maintain her appearance (unaged from her career in black and white movies, how many decades ago was that?) – all pale into insignificance when Calder returns and realizes what Raven is capable of. Of course he must cure her of her darkness, as Victor needed to cure Lily of wilfulness, and straps her to a table, then ignores her retraction of consent. This was a hard scene to watch, let me tell you. Calder is so desperate to perform this next experiment, so overcome with his need to assert control over yet another patient and another weird illness, that he betrays Garfield’s trust, shatters the relationship that poor Gar realizes later was built on an illusion, his idea of who Calder was rather than who he actually was. Of course, Calder is mucking with Things Man Was Not Meant To Muck With, and gets a comeuppance, but does he learn from it? As he stares out the window, back in his wheelchair after only recently learning to walk again, Frank Sinatra croons that we’ll meet again, some sunny day, and I don’t think Dr. Calder has learned anything, no. Not in a moral sense, anyway. He’ll try again, and soon.

So the scientist is mad in his disregard of boundaries. It’s not what is behind him that drives him, or what is around him, like the engineer, but what may lie ahead. The mad scientist must know, must perform the next experiment, must uncover the secret, regardless of the cost, regardless of who is hurt or what else is lost in taking that next step. The mad engineer is angry. The mad scientist is arrogant. One builds. The other seeks to surpass all others – deity, fellow scientists, it matters not what they are, the mad scientist must be the One Who Knows.

Tally Ho!