Scientists can get a bad rap in films and TV. As Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory utters “it’s amazing how many supervillains have advanced degrees.” They are often the source of a lot of the troubles that the heroes face, either through lab accidents or a slight megalomania problem. As science is being increasingly used in films to explain strange goings-on, I thought it worth looking for the examples of scientists in films who give our job a bad name.
So, some ground rules first.
The definition of “worst” in this list can relate to simply being bad at science. However, there is an inherent understanding in the world of science that your work should be conducted to an ethical code. Science in general is geared towards helping people or improving the world, through things such as finding ways to cure diseases or developing technology to make people’s lives easier. In order to be considered a ‘good’ scientist, your work should have implications that will ultimately bring benefit to people or the planet. Therefore, someone can be an excellent scientist technically-speaking but if they are not guided by a strong sense of morality and ethics then they will still be considered a “bad scientist” by their peers.
This, then, is my list of my worst scientists in film and mainstream TV. They were ranked strongly on their scientific ethics, but I also took into consideration their intelligence and common sense and how realistic they are. This list applies only to fictional scientists and excludes medical doctors, engineers and inventors.
NOTE: This list is looking at the characters of the scientists themselves. The films and shows concerned, and the characters within them, are often excellent.
20. Professor Ian Duncan, Community
Like Violet Barnes (who I talked about on my list of good scientists, here), Prof Duncan qualifies for this list as he is shown to be an academic rather than clinical psychologist. However, working at Greendale means that he is hardly at the top of the psychology profession.
His ethics are called into question at numerous points throughout the show, for example exploiting a vulnerable patient in the hopes of getting published and offering to counsel someone who he quite clearly has a crush on. While he struggles to do the good thing and to conquer his personal problems, he never quite manages to achieve either. This makes him quite realistic (as far as you can get in such an excellently ridiculous show) as scientists are not perfect people and will be motivated by greed (and other things), but it does not make him a good psychologist.
19. Dr. Ira Kane, Evolution
Ira Kane is a scientist on a quest for redemption after creating a vaccine that caused debilitating side-effects, which became known as the “Kane Madness.” This wouldn’t be enough to land him on the “worst list,” particularly because mistakes and unforeseen side-effects can happen with vaccines in real life.
However, Ira Kane is portrayed as a generic “scientist.” He appears to not really have a speciality, but seems to have a great knowledge of (apparently) both synthesising vaccines and alien biology. That’s not a specialism I’ve ever heard of, anyway.
I’ve never quite forgiven this film for the “scientific” conclusion that, as arsenic is toxic to humans, then selenium must be toxic to the invading alien army. As much as I love the use of the periodic table to resolve the plot of a movie, trying to save the world on a random theory without first testing it is a little risky. Every scientist knows to test out a hypothesis on a small scale first. If Kane’s prediction had been wrong, which is entirely possible, the Earth would have been doomed.
18. Dr. Nefario, Despicable Me
Dr. Nefario, voiced by Russell Brand, doesn’t seem to be inherently evil. His motivations for wanting to help Gru achieve his evil plans appear to be about friendship and maybe a little about ambition. Maybe he’s just doing it for kicks, which does put him in a sketchy place, ethically speaking.
At first, he cares more about the plan than about his fellow human beings, referring to the girls Gru adopts as “a distraction.” He also fails a little bit on scientific ability because he doesn’t test the effects of the shrink ray before it is used on the moon, and this lack of gathering preliminary scientific data eventually leads to the plan’s failure.
17. Professor Frink, The Simpsons
Prof Frink is not unintelligent (he has an IQ of 199 after all … 198 … 197…) or unethical per se, but a lot of his experiments have a tendency to go a bit wrong, particularly in the Halloween episodes.
His scientific speciality is also unclear, veering wildly from episode to episode, depending on the demands of the plot. He is often shown as an inventor or engineer, but he is also an astronomer and has discovered his own element (Frinkonium), and generally gives of a bit of a physicist vibe. He is also the comic embodiment of every dubious scientist stereotype seen in popular culture, including his ambiguous scientific speciality, general social ineptitude, provision of plot-dependent McGuffins and occasional lurches towards megalomania.
16. Professor Farnsworth, Futurama
Like Professor Frink, Professor Hubert Farnsworth can fit into the ‘mad scientist’ bill when required. The nature of the research that he does is vague and he does invent quite a few things. But he describes himself as a scientist rather than an inventor so he is allowed a place on this list.
Described by his great-uncle (plus a few generations) Fry as being “an amoral crackpot”, he is also in possession of multiple doomsday devices, making him more unethical than his yellow-skinned counterpart (who is only shown with one). At least he’s less of a jackass than Wernstrom.
15. Walter White, Breaking Bad
There’s no denying that Mr. White is a brilliant chemist. That blue meth is good stuff. Very pure. And it’s nice to see someone getting out of tricky situations using the power of science. One of the strengths of Breaking Bad is that there is also some credibility to the beginning of the story – you would imagine that a desperate scientist could indeed turn to making meth to help his family. He would easily have made it on to the “Good Scientists” list then if his ethics weren’t a little … um … sketchy.
But, as you well know, sketchy they were. Sorry, Mr. White…
14. Dr. Maggie Walsh, Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Maggie Walsh is a professor of psychology and so stretches the bounds of what is considered a scientist, but we do see her performing (extremely ethically dubious) experiments.
A modern day Victor Frankenstein (a theme we’re coming back to later on), she attempts to mess with the laws of nature to create a weapon. The fact that she is willing to coldly dispatch anyone that stands in her way and secretly gives behavior-modifying drugs to the soldiers in her care highlight just how chillingly evil she really is.
She also falls under the common military/government scientist cliche of wishing to weaponize everything that she comes across (again, we’re coming back to that later too). She is also unrealistic because, as far as I know, no scientist would try to create a nightmare demon-robot-dead human hybrid because they are well aware that it is impossible to reanimate dead tissue to create a functional, thinking, autonomous creature.
At least I hope no-one is trying to do this …
13. Aaron, Primer
Whilst neither Aaron nor his fellow protagonist Abe appear to be scientists in their professional lives, their knowledge and understanding of complex physics, mathematics and engineering certainly qualifies them for a place on this list.
They do score very highly on the intelligence scale, being able to create a device that allows them to travel backwards in time. Abe especially is well aware of the implications of such a device, for example taking careful steps to ensure that they don’t create a paradox. Logical thinking such as this is a quality that is obviously seen in many scientists – the ability to anticipate the outcome of an experiment and ensure that steps are taken to reduce any potential risks.
The science portrayed in the film is realistic to a point. Also, in keeping their device a secret, Abe and Aaron probably acted in a similar way to how most people would, either through fear of exploitation of the technology or pure selfishness.
However, it is Aaron’s actions in particular that put him in a very dodgy place when it comes to ethics. He shows more propensity to use the box for his own selfish gain, and these gains are petty at that – getting a little extra money, and trying to look like a hero.
He seems to let the power behind the machine get to his head, messing with the timelines, meeting his double (and thus creating a paradox) and by the end attempting to commercialise the discovery, which could lead to some very chilling outcomes indeed.
12. Dr. Octopus, Spider-Man 2
Dr Octopus, portrayed by Alfred Molina in the film, comes under that all-too-familiar brand of lab-accident supervillains that appear in comic books and their associated movies. You could argue that Dr. Otto Octavius himself is not a ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ scientist, and that the blame lies in the robotic arms that control him. However, Dr. Octavius’ actions and his stubbornness are what eventually leads to his transformation and downfall. The ease with which he succumbs to the influence of the robotic arms – despite the film showing that he is capable of resisting their influence – implies an underlying sense of megalomania or obsession that didn’t come from the arms.
11. Dr. Doom, Fantastic Four
With a name like Victor von Doom, it’s hardly surprising that he falls into villainy. The 2005 film depicts him originally as being the CEO of an industrial scientific company (the new reboot, er, takes a different path). Making businesses out of scientific discoveries is common practice and for many scientists it’s the best way to implement the technologies or discoveries that they make. As in all businesses, there will be people who are more interested in making a profit than helping people, so in this Dr Doom is not unrealistic. However, he then becomes a classic supervillain scientist after being on the receiving end of some poorly done science.
In the comics, he is portrayed as having a mastery of every aspect of science and maths, which, as discussed before, is generally unrealistic. In the films he is a scientist simply because it explains that he is intelligent and therefore a match and contrast to the hero, Reed Richards. He is also the strongest embodiment of the ‘megalomaniac’ brand of supervillain scientists commonly shown in films.
10. Will Rodman, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
It’s hard not feel a bit sorry for Will Rodman. Unlike many of the scientists on this list, he appears here due to general incompetence as opposed to downright villainy. Desperately trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, Will inadvertently unleashes a virus into the world that will eventually lead to the elimination of all mankind.
What’s more, the method used in the film to combat Alzheimer’s and to increase intelligence is not unheard of. It’s used in a process called gene therapy, which uses viruses to deliver genetic material into the body to correct or replace a faulty gene that causes a disease. There have been concerns from some quarters about using viruses in this way – the versions used are unlikely to spread between humans, but they could theoretically regain the ability to do so.
As we have seen with real-life pandemics, viruses that can spread easily from human-to-human can have potentially devastating effects on the population, and with the increase in travel, particularly by air, there are easy ways for the virus to spread. However, the likelihood of such a pandemic being caused by human genetic engineering of the virus is tiny. The use of viral vectors to change genes is also being overtaken by other methods that don’t carry these risks.
As for the use of a virus to cure Alzheimer’s and/or to make us more intelligent, this is improbable but I don’t think it is impossible. Alzheimer’s is not thought to be caused by a single gene, meaning that the virus in the film is unlikely to be a gene therapy.
There has however been some research into using viruses to deliver genetic material that helps to treat Alzheimer’s by helping the stricken brain cells to function better. This technology that could theoretically be used to improve cognitive abilities, as seen in the film, although there are myriad ethical considerations that would cause roadblocks for this in the real world.
Going back to whether Will Rodman is a good scientist or not – he is driven by desperation and this causes him to act impulsively, without proper consideration for the consequences of his actions. Although the spread of the deadly ALZ-113 virus is not all his fault, it certainly wouldn’t have happened without him and I’m afraid being responsible for the almost complete wipeout of the human race makes you a bad scientist.
9. Dr. Arnim Zola, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
You can’t really place any scientist who was a former Nazi on the good list but Arnim Zola is another level of evil. Part of the supervillain collective Hydra, he is obsessed with creating new and extraordinary ways to kill and control people, including performing experiments on other human beings.
The type of scientist that Zola is is vague – he is supposedly a biochemist but apparently knows enough about technology to upload his consciousness into a computer years before computer use became commonplace.
Somewhat unusually for a comic-book film villain, Zola isn’t turned evil by a lab accident or being influenced by his own machines, he appears to be simply working under his own ideology and that of Hydra, making him actually one of the more terrifying villains in the Marvel cinematic universe.
8. Dr. Victor Frankenstein
There have of course been several portrayals of Dr. Victor Frankenstein in film (and on stage) over the years, including the upcoming adaptation with Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy. If you go for adaptations that are close to Mary Shelley’s original novel, the 1994 version by Kenneth Branagh and starring Robert De Niro is probably the best one to use and so this entry is based mostly on this particular portrayal.
Victor Frankenstein is probably the archetypal “playing with God” scientist that is so beloved of storytellers and filmmakers – someone who thinks he is better than the natural order of things and so uses his skills to interfere with it. Conquering death is probably the second most common villain motivator after destroying/ruling the world, and Frankenstein embodies this trope better than any other.
His lack of ethics gets even worse once he succeeds in bringing his creature to life, as he then takes no responsibility for the consequences of his actions. He also doesn’t learn from his mistakes and repeats the procedure – motivated by desperation and grief of course, but any good scientist knows not to repeat an experiment that went so badly wrong the first time.
Overall, he is clearly a brilliant scientist, technically speaking, but is motivated by his own selfish obsessions and desires – qualities that make you glad that in real life, scientists need to undergo thorough ethical and other procedures to justify their experiments.
7. The scientists in Sherlock‘s Hounds Of Baskerville
The second episode of Sherlock‘s second season adapts probably the most famous of Conan Doyle’s stories about the legendary detective. It also has a very strong focus on Bad Scientists Doing Bad Things and is none-too-subtle about this message either.
This episode is about how the military can use scientific techniques against their enemies. It particularly focuses on what maverick scientists will do when they are given the ability to test controversial technology and the horrible lengths they go to in order to achieve what they want. Of course I can’t say what goes on at a military research base and horrible things have been done before in the name of science, so this isn’t completely unrealistic. I would hope that it’s fairly unlikely that there are rogue scientists routinely testing horrible hallucinogens on innocent people.
This episode also touches on experimentation with animals, with one scene in particular being galling if you are a scientist in real life.
This scene reveals that the scientists have created a glowing green rabbit. The scientist kidnapped this rabbit from her daughter, just to hammer home how unethical she is. The technology to make animals glow green does exist and has been used for both research (mostly into genetics) and non-research applications. In an official research environment, such as a military base, there is a huge amount of scientific and ethical justification needed to perform these experiments. They certainly wouldn’t be allowed to test it on kidnapped domestic pets.
Portraying scientists as callous and uncaring is quite a damaging misrepresentation of what many researchers are trying to achieve with these sorts of experiments. The rabbit also wouldn’t glow simply when the lights were turned off – it would only work under ultraviolet light, making this episode dubious scientifically as well as in its portrayal of research and researchers.
6. Poison Ivy, Batman & Robin
One of the few female scientist supervillains, Poison Ivy fits in well with the ridiculousness that is Batman & Robin. As a scientist, she’s almost too absurd to try and write about with any degree of seriousness – of course she is unrealistic and the science is incredibly dubious. I’m not quite sure how being injected with poisonous chemicals would allow someone to develop the ability to poison someone through kissing them. I’m pretty sure in real life she’d have ended up dead or at least in horrible pain.
Scientists generally are passionate about what they study – you have to be in order to survive the job – but I think attempting to destroy the world because they don’t appreciate plants enough is going a bit far, even for a botanist.
5. Dr. Henry Wu, Jurassic Park/World
I first conceived this list before seeing Jurassic World, and Dr. Wu originally made it not due to outright villainy, but for a horrifying lack of ethics. He is an example of a reckless scientist doing things just because the technology and knowledge exists and he doesn’t seem to care about the consequences.
However, his appearance in Jurassic World ramps him up a notch on the “outright evil” scale. Going from just developing technology “because we can” to actively messing with the laws of nature and being completely uninterested in the human cost of his experiments makes him go from slightly sinister to downright chilling.
His creation of the Indominus Rex appears to be a random hodgepodge of bits of different reptiles and his attitude indicates that he has thrown them all together slightly randomly, just to see what would happen. The fact that he doesn’t learn from the mistakes of the first film, even going so far as to further develop a seriously flawed idea, also makes him a terrible scientist.
Scientists can and will push the boundaries on what is acceptable practice and of course some do work with the military to develop technology. There are obviously also scientists who will hire out their knowledge to the highest bidder, so the fact that Dr. Wu does this does not make him unrealistic, although maybe he is an exaggeration of what happens in real life. Despite my dislike of the common “bad scientists doing bad things” trope, there is an edge of realism to Dr. Wu that makes me, as a scientist, slightly uncomfortable.
4. Indiana Jones
I don’t know who gave Indiana Jones his PhD or how he got a teaching job at Marshall College. He’s an awful scientist. He just crashes into spaces and takes things without giving them or their surroundings any of the proper care or attention. The fact that he’s more interested in taking a statue than studying its surroundings and significance also shows his complete lack of actual interest in archaeology. He spends far too much time being a hero and not enough time studying things and thinking.
You could argue that he’s ethical seeing as he tries to save the world, but scientifically speaking even his ethics are sketchy – why does he always take things from their rightful places? I’m also not entirely sure why an archaeologist has to be quite that handy with a whip.
3. Dr. Curt Connors, The Amazing Spider-Man
Even amongst the dubious genre of “scientist supervillans,” Curt Connors stands out as the most irritating of them all. There’s no nuance or realism in this character, he’s just a cardboard cut-out of a “good scientist gone mad with power” stereotype. He also seems to go instantly evil the minute he turns into a lizard for some reason.
Issues surrounding the nature of science and scientists, self-experimentation, corporate pressure or moral issues have been handled much better elsewhere (see: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Contagion).
The science behind this transformation is also laughable. I’m not sure what he actually injected into himself but if it was simply lizard DNA then that probably wouldn’t do anything, and certainly wouldn’t turn you into a lizard. He may have used a gene-therapy virus but even so any good scientist would have administered just the gene that is responsible for limb regeneration and not the ones for things such as going scaly and green and getting pointy teeth.
The idea behind limb regeneration is an interesting one. In order to regenerate a fully-working arm, you would need to create a complicated set of elements, including bones, muscles, blood vessels, nerves and skin cells. This would all need to connect back to the existing body parts in order for the arm to function. This is an enormously complex ask, especially for something as large and detailed as a human. Whilst limb regeneration does not exist at all in mammals, it can happen in reptiles and fish, most notably the salamander, which is able to entirely regenerate lost limbs. It is highly unlikely that lizard DNA can be used to stimulate growth in humans or other mammals due to the differences in anatomy.
However, an understanding of the molecular process behind limb regeneration in lizards could give scientists the knowledge to translate this to humans or mammals, but this would be a long way off, if it could even happen at all.
2. Dr. Peter Venkman, Ghostbusters
Despite his assurances otherwise, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that Venkman isn’t a scientist at all. He clearly has no interest in or love for his subject of parapsychology and I think that he may even be dishonest enough to just go around calling himself “Dr. Venkman” with enough confidence that people will believe him. Either that or his PhD is not in psychology or parapsychology as he claims (maybe it’s in Women’s Studies?).
The rest of the crew do not really approach the problem of seeing ghosts very scientifically either, as they seem more interested in profiting from exterminating the ghosts than studying them. They do end up saving the world though so I’ll give them some points for that.
1. The crew from Prometheus
Like anyone with any understanding at all of the scientific process, I watched Prometheus with my jaw hanging slightly open. The level of stupidity exhibited by this particular group of scientists is breathtaking and it’s hard to single out just one character for particular scorn.
For starters, undertaking an expensive scientific mission on what is essentially a whim? Seriously? And taking off your helmets on a strange planet because your equipment says the air is okay but mentions nothing about possible airborne diseases? Yeah, that’s sensible.
Interfering with the local flora and fauna? Check. Failing to do anything like safety checks, take notes on the surroundings, exercise proper caution when faced with potentially dangerous alien snakes? Bringing potentially hazardous materials on board your ship in an improper container? You got it. The list just goes on and on. The one good thing I can say about the scientists in this film is that they made me feel better about myself, because no-one could be as ridiculously incompetent as this lot in real life…