You just can't have a dystopian science fiction film without some evil scientists lurking behind the scenes — or even right out front. Remember the good old days when Satanists and corporate overlords were responsible for everything terrible? Why are scientists turning into bad guy clichés?
It's one of those things that has become so common that you don't really think about it. But let's just contemplate some recent bad guys, shall we? Remember how The Avengers was supposedly about Loki being a bad guy, but was actually about how Dr. Selvig screwed everything up when he decided to experiment with the Tesseract? Sure, S.H.I.E.L.D. is to blame too, but the scientist sets everything in motion. Then there are the scientists who try to kill everybody in Divergent, the scientists who make the apes hate humanity in the new Planet of the Apes series, pretty much every psycho on Fringe, and of course the manufacturers of pretty much every zombie plague from the one in 28 Days Later to the one in Helix.
Even the creepy bastards from the 1970s in Lost were scientists. You meet a scientist in a story, and you can be sure that she's either helping the bad guys with their cyber or their mutant strain or both.
Maybe it's because our stories are full of plotholes and we just want some scientists to plug them up? Marine biologist David Shiffman wrote recently on his Facebook page, in response to The Maze Runner:
I, personally, am getting tired of the bad guys in science fiction movies being scientists. In this case, scientists who, somehow, after global civilization has completely collapsed, manage to get the resources to build one of the largest and most complex pieces of technology ever built (a giant maze that changes every night).
Why did they build it? To better understand how the human brain works by seeing how people respond to crazy challenges, even though they already have an advanced enough understanding of the human brain to selectively erase certain memories but not others. There's gotta be a more effective and much cheaper method to study behavior, even disregarding the horrible things they did to children in the maze.
It's bad enough seeing scientists portrayed as evil and heartless, but being evil and heartless for reasons that don't even make any goddamn sense?
It actually does make sense, though, if you consider that most people feel so alienated from the scientific process that they think science is all just incomprehensible. It doesn't help that anti-science politicians often try to represent laboratory work as a bunch of nonsense.
The flip side of the "science as incomprehensible" idea is that science is basically magic. And that's another notion that runs through many of those evil scientist stories. Many of the maniacal scientists in Fringe, for example, might as well have been evil wizards. Same goes for the ones we see in superhero movies (Bolivar Trask, anyone?). Again, you can only have representations like this when most people feel like they just don't understand science.
This problem helps explain why we have so many mad scientists in movies, but so few mad cooks. Even if you don't like to cook, or aren't good at it, you aren't likely to think of cooking as something that is profoundly incomprehensible and therefore responsible for almost anything. And this is why I think the best way to combat evil scientist characters isn't necessarily to have "nice" or "goofy" scientists like the ones in The Big Bang Theory or (gag) Scorpion. Instead, we need to make science itself less mysterious.
That means making more shows like Cosmos, but it also means making smart thrillers like Interstellar and Person of Interest too. Any time you can get a show or movie to teach people that science is more like cooking than like magic, it's a lot harder to turn scientists into ciphers. Doing this may mean that loses a little of its magic, but we will all gain a better understanding of the universe — and better stories, too.