I realized when watching Syfy’s second season of 12 Monkeys that my favorite character is Katarina Jones, played by Barbara Sukowa . She rises above the rest of the capable cast by adding enough ham and chewing sufficient scenery for two characters, a contrast to the rest of the actors who play it straight. Plus, she’s a mad scientist.
Science fiction is well-stocked with the character trope. Lately, when a mad scientist is introduced, they’re often serial killers with a sheen of science. The archtype deserves better. Dr. Jones in the 12 Monkeys show is good. Here’s some other favorites.
Dr. Victor Frankenstein is perhaps the earliest and most iconic. He was a tragic character in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, emotional and erratic and a bit of a coward when it comes to dealing with the horrific but intelligent creature he made. Universal Studios gave him much of his more famous moments in the 1931 film Frankenstein, including a lab borrowed from another entry in this article. The doctor here (played by Colin Clive) displays his hubris full force when he shouts, “It’s alive! In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” Later portrayals were much less interesting.
We find my second pick in one of the first feature-length science fiction films. Metropolis (1927) has its mad scientist in the form of Rotwang, an inventor obsessed with a lost love who he is remaking as a robot. He is convinced to use his robot to subvert an uprising of the lower city workers, creating a False Maria to replace the peaceful real leader of the workers. Rotwang’s lengthy pursuit of Maria with a flashlight makes you wonder if he couldn’t think of a quicker way to capture her or if he just likes toying with people he’s about to kidnap. Something a mad scientist would do, I guess. But he comes on with such energy in his scenes, he’s a treat to behold, especially the entire lab sequence where his robot is transformed into the False Maria. Rotwang was played by Friedrich Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who acted as a baddie in other movies of the era and worked with Metropolis director Fritz Lang numerous times.
Not all mad scientists are evil. They range from nutty to just slightly unhinged, and can be a source of humor. Case in point is Dr. Emmett Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd, in the Bck to the Future trilogy. He’s definitely a scientist, but is he mad? Just a short list of possible charges for a rap-sheet: child endangerment, animal endangerment, theft, reckless driving, dealing with terrorists in a business capacity, and wiring a city block with electrical equipment meant to direct the flow of lightning down to a wet street. I think a court of law would characterize a few of these as felonies related to mayhem and reckless endangerment. But he does it all with heart. It’s for this last fact that I consider him my favorite entry here and hope that other mad scientists take a cue from “Doc.” After all, if you had to have one of these guys living next door to you, who would you want it to be?
So there are scores of other possibilities. Who would you pick as your favorite mad scientist?