Mad scientists have taken many forms/personages/appearances over the decades since Frankenstein, Moreau, and Rotwang. We have the plucky good guys like Flubber and Doc Brown, and the villainous breed in the Re-Animator and perhaps 90% of Spider-man villains. In our postmodern age, the mad scientist has adapted in appearances and subtlety, but the moral dilemma between what science can do and what it should do is still very much in the public sightgeist. I believe mad scientists are at their best when we really aren’t sure where they fall on the good-guy/bad-guy spectrum, or when they can shift depending on what serves them best.
As a connoisseur of the sub-genre, I have been enjoying Season 4 of MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. as the show explores the motivations and consequences of our mad scientist, Dr. Radcliffe, and his creation, Aida, the postmodern Frankenstein’s monster.
Dr. Radcliffe is a brilliant scientist and transhumanist, which is a person who believes in transcending normal human limitations with science and technology. In the show, Radcliffe seems to have endless resources to carry out his experiments. Back in Season 3, Radcliffe was forced to help HIVE by experimenting with the whole Terrigen/Inhuman plotline. Eventually Radcliffe helps the team and becomes an ally, though a condition of his pardon is he is not allowed to conduct unauthorized experiments. Luckily, you can’t keep a good mad scientist down. Radcliffe builds AIDA, an artificial intelligence based on S.H.I.E.L.D. technology.
We already know this will not end well. Through the course of Season 4, Radcliffe and Aida go from ally to adversary and back several times as they carry out Radcliffe’s schemes. There is a season’s worth of pseudo-sciences with a splash of dark magic, which I’m not going to delve into here. The point I want to make is how brilliant the writers have architected Aida’s character arc.
Aida transforms from simpleton in mind and body to a warrior and infiltrator. As she struggles to understand her place in the world and tries to interpret Radcliffe’s programming, Aida finds herself and comes up with a few goals of her own. Using power gained from reading an evil magic book (not my favorite part of the story), Aida saves several of the team, proving her value and earning herself a bit of trust.
But Aida’s transformation is far from complete. When the team learns that Radcliffe has betrayed them, Aida and Radcliffe flee SHIELD to the enemy. Aida goes from sidekick as she tries to understand Radcliffe’s selfish and personal goals, to mastermind. She ultimately betrays her creator, like any good monster should, albeit in a way that doesn’t circumvent her programing logic. Aida kills Radcliffe’s body and traps his mind in a reality simulation of his own creation. In this simulation, Aida becomes the supreme dictator, Madam Hydra.
Her real motivation, though, is slowly revealed as our heroes struggle to free themselves from the simulation. She wants to become a “real” person, free from the constraints of her programming. Using the power of the evil “magic book,” Aida uses a mix of sciences and magic to gain a real body and is free. Thankfully, Aida’s story is far from over as she apparently has magic teleporting abilities. Aida is a true monster in a postmodern age, although the story is still exploring the same themes and struggles found in the pages of Frankenstein and the Isle of Dr. Moreau.
Radcliffe’s story did come to an end as he ultimately found some redemption helping his protege escape the grasp of his creation.
What do we learn from these stories? What does the mad scientist trope teach us about our constant need for progress and technology? Is this a warning? Can we leave our future in the hands of corporations and governments to regulate our scientist? Whose morality do we rely on?