Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mad, mad, mad

The glory days of the mad scientist were the 1950s. And the archetypal mad-scientist film was The Thing.

The eponymous creature crash-lands its flying saucer near an American research station at the North Pole, setting off all kinds of scientific instruments: sound detectors, seismographs, magnetometers, compasses. "This geiger counter's going crazy!" says one young researcher. "Could be the Russians," replies dashing Air Force captain Pat Hendry. "They're all over the Pole like flies."

Yes, the Cold War is raging, but it's not the Russkies this time. The Thing is a giant manlike plant, intent on sucking human blood. What to do? Captain Hendry organizes an assault. The chief scientist, Dr. Carrington, has other ideas. Destruction of the monster would betray science, he insists. This walking carrot from outer space knows "the secrets of the stars," and must be studied.

Carrington is impressed by the Thing's exceptional brain -- pure vegetable intelligence unencumbered by human distractions like love and sex. "No emotions, no heart, our superior in every way!" the mad doctor enthuses, revealing what Hollywood thinks of science at its worst.

You can guess how this all turns out. Carrington rushes up to the monster shouting, "I'm not your enemy. I'm a scientist." Whack! So much for scientific curiosity. Captain Hendry saves the day by frying the Thing with high-voltage electricity.

Ah, that was a time when science was held in enough regard to make the demonization of science possible. No Mad Scientists these days. The horror genre now belongs to psychotic villains of no particular talent who love to slice up nubile teens for the pure hell of it. We have become more interested in the worlds inside our heads than in the common world outside.

For science to be a source of fantasy horror, it must first be held in some respect. Maybe we have no more Mad Scientists because we have no more science heroes.