Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

Mad Men of Science: Dr. Horrible in Bad Company

The “mad scientist” archetype stretches back to the classical myth of Daedalus, labyrinth builder and designer of false wings with substandard adhesive properties. The mad scientist embodies the sin of hubris; a man who acquires skill and knowledge so great that his pride, arrogance, and presumptuousness invite fatal retribution. Literature’s most famous mad scientist is Victor Frankenstein, who assumed the divine prerogative to create life . . . and look where that got him. But nothing in books could compare to the real-world impact of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb—some egghead had figured out a way to kill everybody.

Below are ten examples of Dr. Horrible antecedents from the small screen.

 

In the wake of the bomb’s creation, the modern version of the mad scientist crystallized in pulp entertainments like monster movies and comic books: a megalomaniacal genius, brilliant but unstable, driven by unchecked ego and blind (or indifferent) to the catastrophic consequences of his actions.

Like many arch-villains, the mad scientist sees himself as a misunderstood good guy, bitter over the world’s failure to install him in his rightful place: in charge. He’s the smartest one in the room, yet ignored or outright mocked as athletic extroverts in long underwear bask in the public’s adoration.

It’s a short leap to imagine that the typical sci-fi/comic book fan might feel a bit of identification with the mad scientist. Substitute “technological genius” for “good at math” or “best essay writer in the class” and “varsity jock” for “superhero,” and the parallels become obvious. It’s no wonder fandom can’t get enough of the mad scientist. He’s one of us.


Dr. Shrinker
One of the stranger entries in the wacked-out kiddie-show Krofft oeuvre (which, as it includes H. R. Pufnstuf and Bigfoot and Wildboy, is saying something), Dr. Shrinker concerned the efforts of the eponymous doctor (Jay Robinson) to recapture a trio of six-inch-high humans he had earlier miniaturized with his shrink ray. That’s it—that’s the whole show. Shrinker himself complains at one point, “I chase the Shrinkies. I catch the Shrinkies. The Shrinkies escape. It’s a vicious cycle and it's driving me mad!” One assumes it was a short trip.

Simon Bar Sinister
Lex Luthor to Underdog’s Superman, Bar Sinister and his henchman, Cad, regularly threatened Sweet Polly Purebred and planned world domination. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Lionel Barrymore, the diminutive Bar Sinister, voiced by Allen Swift, also liked to shrink things—in addition to people, the nefarious villain shrank the world’s entire water supply and held it ransom. Now that’s the way to exploit a shrinking ray!

Dr. X
HBO’s wonderfully demented Mr. Show with Bob and David introduced Dr. X, a mad scientist with a heart who held annual telethons to raise the ransom necessary to forestall his destruction of the earth by death ray. Why did he do it? “For the kids.”

Prof. Maggie Walsh
Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fourth season “Big Bad” was The Initiative, a government project secreted beneath the campus of UC Sunnydale and overseen by the chilly Professor Maggie Walsh, assayed by David Mamet mainstay Lindsay Crouse. Ostensibly representing a scientific/military approach to policing demons, The Initiative also harbored Walsh’s secret, Frankenstein Monster–like project Adam, a human/demon/robot amalgam that killed his creator before embarking on an orgy of terror and destruction. Good times.

Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless
This determined dwarf, delightfully played by Michael Dunn in the campy sixties series Wild Wild West, bedeviled James West, the James Bond of the cowboy set, with a dazzling array of steam-powered technological gadgets. Loveless would eventually die as a result of ulcers brought on by frustration over his inability to kill West.

Dr. Bunsen Honeydew
The Muppet Show’s Dr. Bunsen Honeydew seemed relatively benign . . . until his efforts inevitably went wrong and traumatized his mute assistant, Beaker. Honeydew’s breakthroughs include the Gorilla Detector and the Electric Nose Warmer, accomplishments made all the more impressive considering the Doctor’s lack of eyes (though he did, for some reason, wear glasses).

Madame Sin
Film legend Bette Davis inexplicably played the title character in this ridiculous James Bondish 1972 TV movie, a vaguely “Oriental (!)” mastermind set on hijacking a nuclear submarine. She had the high tech secret base, outlandish futuristic weaponry, and a very free hand with cosmetics. Madame Sin was reportedly the most expensive movie ever made for television at the time.

Dr. Yes
Get Smart made a cottage industry out of parodying James Bond, so it was only natural that Bond’s Dr. No be answered with Smart’s Dr. Yes (Donald Davis), a crackpot responsible for sabotaging a series of missile launches. Agents 86 and 99 go after the Doctor with an intriguing new weapon: a remote-controlled mosquito.

Professor Frink
Bearing a striking similarity to Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor, The Simpsons’ John I.Q. Nerdelbaum Frink is Springfield’s resident loopy genius, creator of the Frog Exaggerator and Hamburger Earmuffs, among other triumphs. Frink is a critical player in many Halloween-themed “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, where his time travel and corpse reanimation applications produce predictably catastrophic results.

Dr. Mephesto
South Park’s Alphonse Mephesto, clearly modeled on Marlon Brando’s outré turn as the animal/man–creating Dr. Moreau, pursues his interest in genetic engineering to create a panoply of bizarre creatures, usually with the distinguishing feature of multiple buttocks. Incredibly, Mephesto does not come off as weird as Brando did as Moreau; there’s just something about a lisping, morbidly obese cinema legend dusted in white powder cavorting with mutated jungle creatures that really makes an impression.

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Photo credits: all Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog images: Amy Opoka; The Underdog Show: Classic Media; Dr. Shrinker: Krofft Entertainment; Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Twentieth Century Fox Television; Wild Wild West: Warner Bros. Television; Madame Sin: NBC Universal; Get Smart: CBS Entertainment; The Simpsons: Twentieth Century Fox Television; South Park: Comedy Central