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A New Hollywood Scientist Cliche

by Steven Novella, Jan 26 2009

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson was first published in the Victorian era in 1886. In this classic novella the civilized Dr. Jekyll struggles with an inner demon he has released – Mr. Hyde. Hyde is described in the book as the natural inner beast that resides within us all, always barely kept in check by our civilized morals. While a work of clear fiction, the underlying assumption of the story is that it is humanity’s nature to be a cruel, brutal, selfish beast. Fiction can tell us a great deal about cultural beliefs and values.

As skeptics we are concerned with the promotion of science to the public and so we pay attention to the portrayal of science and scientists in mass media. Television and movies, and now the internet, are our modern forms of storytelling and they reflect and help create the collective consciousness of our culture. Even pure fiction, like Jeyll and Hyde, can tell us a great deal about the assumptions and icons of our society.

The scientist as Hollywood icon has gone through a limited number of permutations, and I believe a new icon has emerged in the last few years. Dr. Jekyll reflects the classic vision of a scientist as a lone mad genius, playing god and uncaring about the consequences (only realizing them when it is too late). Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, a few James Bond villains, and just about every comic book scientist fit that icon.

The latter half of the 20th century saw another scientist icon emerge – the nutty professor. This is the image of a scientist as a hopeless geek – brilliant, good-hearted, but profoundly nerdy, culturally clueless, uncomfortable around women, often naive, and with a humorous tendency to blow things up. In addition to the inventer of flubber, this icon includes the nerdy scientist from The Simpsons, Jimmy Neutron, the cast of The Big Bang Theory, and nearly every scientist portrayed in tv and movies for children. This icon is still dominant today.

Now I believe a new icon has emerged in the last few years – the scientist as an impossibly brilliant but deeply flawed cynical hero. I think the prototype for this new scientist icon is Dr. House, portrayed by Hugh Laurie. Dr. House is smarter than everyone else in the room, and always manages to solve even the most difficult of medical mysteries with a flash of insight that comes at the appropriately dramatic moment. He also flaunts his cynicism, in which he clearly takes great pride. It is as if his cynicism is the other side of the coin of his brilliance – you can’t have one without the other.

House is also a deeply flawed character. He is addicted to narcotics (which I think is an omage Sherlock Holmes, which of course makes Homes a strong influence and perhaps the true progenitor of this new scientist icon), he is unable to form healthy relationships, and there is a lonely sadness about him that derives partly from a past tragedy.

But the character works because Laurie is a great actor and he makes House a compelling and likable character. We want him to succeed, and his flaws are endearing.

We now have a new slew of tv programming seeking to replicate House’s successful formula. The Mentalist is about a former stage magician, Patrick Jane, who suffered a great tragedy – his wife and daughter we killed by a serial killer that he mentioned in one of his public readings. He is a likable but quirky character, but more of a Columbo than a Sherlock Holmes. He is always one step ahead of everyone around him, and uses his special mentalist talents to trick the guilty party into revealing themselves. He is relationship-impaired and has a deep cynical streak.

The Eleventh Hour, a series copied from a recent BBC show staring Patrick Stewart, features a scientist, Dr. Hood, who is a consultant to the FBI and helps them solve science-based crimes and mysteries. Hood is impossibly brilliant and far-reaching in his fund of knowledge, and like House seems to solve each case in a flash of insight. He too has recently lost his wife (to cancer) and this gives him his cynicism. In a recent episode he opined that he knows there are no miracles because of all those who asked for one and did not receive it. He retains some of the geekiness from the “nutty professor” icon, but toned down to give him a bit more sex appeal.

And now we have a brand new series, Lie To Me, featuring a consultant portrayed by Tim Roth who has mastered the science of body language and can infer a great deal about a person (including whether or not they are lieing) just from careful observation. Although only one episode has aired, it is clear that Roth’s character is brilliant and deeply cynical (everyone lies all the time). We know he is divorced, and he has that same rough-around-the-edges persona as House.

The positive aspects of this new scientist as cynical anti-hero is that these scientist characters are all meant to be likable and charismatic in their own way. I like that the scientist in these shows is the hero and not an evil menace. Science is also portrayed as a useful tool that is practical and can solve problems. I also like the fact that these scientist characters all appear to be very skeptical in their world-view, although this positive is offset by the fact that their skepticism is often portrayed as cynicism. I think The Mentalist’s Jane is the most purely skeptical character of the bunch – he’s practically Banachek.

The negatives include the fact that all of these characters are men. Their female “Watsons” all serve the role of being the person that has to have everything carefully explained to them (admittedly a necessary device for the audience). But also the women are their softer non-cynical counterparts. They are there to constantly point out the glaring flaws in their personality. Sometimes this gets to the insipid “you just need to have faith” type of admonition and I find myself thinking that all of these shows need a good skeptical consultant to tell them how their scientist characters would respond in such a situation. I know there are female scientists out there in tv land, but this new scientist icon is definitely male dominated.

Another negative is the cliche that these characters have to be deeply flawed in some way. Why can’t a scientist just be a regular person? I know this is good drama and storytelling, and that is why literary cliche’s emerge, because they work. But let’s show a little imagination. It would be nice to break the mold a bit.

And finally I dislike how every mystery must be solved with a flash of brilliance.  I know this is a good dramatic plot device – all of these elements are, that is why they are copied. I am just thinking about their impact on our culture’s view of science. What these shows often portray is that science is inaccessible. Often arcane and impenetrable knowledge is used by the scientists, and they always seems to have the necessary factual tidbits at their finger tips. The unintentional message this may be sending is to forget about a career in science, or even understanding science, unless you are already a brilliant nerd.

There is a lot of good in these shows also. They often portray a scientific process of evaluating various claims and testing them, eliminating variables one by one, and the logic involved is often sound. But I would like to bring these characters down to earth a bit. Don’t try to impress the audience with flashy jargon – make the concepts understandable. Don’t make them an expert in everything, show them consulting other experts or references.

On the whole I think these shows are a net positive for the public image of science. Science is the hero of these shows, and the scientists are the stars. I prefer this new icon to the mad science and the nutty professor – definitely a move in the right direction. But this new scientist as a brilliant, cynical, flawed hero is to real working scientists as the Hollywood image of a cowboy was to real working cowboys.

49 Responses to “A New Hollywood Scientist Cliche”

  1. Hayden Jones says:

    Hi Steve,

    Many years ago, I was attending a lecture/talk given by Rick Green. (He’s a Canadian comedian and sci-fi geek). At that time he pointed to another archetype (that may have come and gone) which was the scientist “environmentalist” hero that you would see in a movie like “Dante’s Peak”

  2. greg says:

    The Greg House character is an adaptation of Holmes, as admitted by the writers and director of the show. Just check out the wikipedia article for all the connections and subtle ins that are included in the show.

    I think similar to the characters you mention are the casts of the various CSI shows, which do show a bit more of the meticulousness and piecing things together aspect of science, where the solution isn’t always a brilliant insight that is hidden from the viewer. I have to admit, I really look forward to the episode of House where it actually is lupus.

  3. Mastriani says:

    Another negative is the cliche that these characters have to be deeply flawed in some way. Why can’t a scientist just be a regular person?

    Machiavelli? Fromm? Agamben? Nietzsche? Sartre? Need I go on?

    Because of the incessant pervasiveness of morality and all its consequent double binds, the human animal is forced, in the social context, to be flawed.

    My Great Uncle had two PhD.’s; biochemistry and physics. I think the more brilliant the person, the more something as simple as “relative social morality” becomes an overarching issue.

    Society likes those who “fit in”; brilliance doesn’t, because it forces those who come in contact with it to accept an abject condition of being mediocre; which none of us ever like to admit.

    I think a more objective view of these characters would show that minus a slight bit of the embellishment, they are fairly spot on.

    The fact they don’t show women in the lead character position, is again a social error; woman are not good to represent harshly cynical, amoral characters, it is against the social tenets of femininity.

    I love the absurdity of social morality double binds.

  4. LovleAnjel says:

    greg: I too, am waiting for lupus or MS to actually be diagnosed on House.

    If you look at the ensemble shows (CSI, Law & Order, NCIS) you are more likely to get away from the archetypes you describe above– people will be brilliant and/or geeky without being socially inept and/or cynical, and the female scientist will have to explain her findings and methods to a male character who is clueless (Abby on NCIS is my favorite TV scientist right now).

  5. Joerg Reiher says:

    Before Mr Laurie became a doctor he was also seen as a “brilliant” psychic:

    I think his current character is sooo much nicer :-)!

    (the sketch above is from the BBC comedy series “A Bit of Fry and Laurie”)

  6. SeanJJordan says:

    LoveleAnjel, Lupus was diagnosed in one of this season’s episodes, if I remember correctly. He said, “Congratulations – we finally have an actual case of Lupus!”

    I wanted to mention that Numb3rs, too, often portrays scientists as being brilliant but flawed in some way.

    One stereotype that never caught on for scientists was that of the characters in “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” — scientists who were also rock stars, black belts, philosophers, trendsetters, and crime fighters.

  7. SkepGeek says:

    I don’t think the main character, Charlie, in Numbers fits any of these stereotypes well. I think this show has the most positive image of the scientists (well applied mathematician). My only beef is couple of ESP/psychic episodes that are somewhat credulous and make the skeptic into a knee jerk cynic. They use the sort of reasoning in those 2 episodes that goes: well anything is possible, therefore it is all equally likely to be true.

  8. I have no problem with flawed characters. Characters should be flawed in interesting ways.

    My observation is that these characters are all deeply flawed, and in a similar way. They are cynical, sometimes cold, and socially inept or at least weird. They have trouble forming healthy relationships. This pattern is emerging as a cliche.

    I also agree that the ensemble casts are much more balanced – and Grissom from CSI is probably the best science character on tv (I know, he just left the show – ack). This new archetype is definitely the lone genius. They are almost superheroes, with special powers bordering beyond the reach of normal people.

  9. RoaldFalcon says:

    If you want to see an excellent portrayal of a female scientest on mainstream television, then I recommend “Bones”.

    “Bones” actually has several scientests, and more than one of them are female, including the title character. Interestingly, the non-scientific, romantic person who needs everything explained is the male lead.

    Highly recommended.

  10. jrpowell says:

    There are “normal” i.e. not deeply flawed scientist-heroes in scifi entertainment lately. The Stargate franchise springs immediately to mind. The characters of Samantha Carter, Daniel Jackson, and the various “Doctor MacCoy” characters in the series are all heroic without being deeply flawed.

  11. Laih says:

    RoaldFalcon: My major beef with Bones is that she apparently has time to do everything! She’s a master of what, three different martial arts, writes best-selling crime novels, *and* is a forensic anthropologist? When does the poor woman sleep?

    Aside from that, I think the portrayal of women on Bones is absolutely wonderful, especially because they’re all super-brainy women. The show does a fantastic job of portraying smart women as perfectly acceptable and not aberrations of nature or some other such drivel.

    It is interesting to note the sudden rise in the antihero scientist in television trends. And while it would be nice to see more roles given to scientists who are not deeply traumatized, grouchy, and or cynical, I think that tv executives have it in their mind that “real people characters” equal “reality shows”. Which is unfortunate, because I personally would relate a bit more with the antihero scientists if they weren’t so… well… antihero.

  12. jrpowell says:

    Arrgh – “McCoy” not “MacCoy.”

    Two movies I’ve seen recently also featured female scientist who weren’t all-knowing, nor geeky. Nicole Kidman played a very straight-up psychiatrist in “The Invasion” (The latest pretty good remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Also Jennifer Connelly as an astrobiologist in the terrible remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

  13. RoaldFalcon says:

    Laih: I agree that the breadth of her activites does seem unrealistic.

    That is, unless you consider a certain Dr. Steven Novella!

  14. bob says:

    I was going to mention Bones, as well. I’ve only watched the first four episodes, but it seems like the main character fits this mold (brilliant but flawed scientists) and is female. And, as RoaldFalcon said, the hunch-driven non-scientist character who can’t keep up with the explanations is male.

  15. Peter V says:

    When you look at something like being “impossibly brilliant,” usually people like this in real life, do have some sort of flaw to them, allowing them to focus in more on what they are brilliant at, in one of your examples you speak of Dr. House. He has a long back-story of his dad being a hard-ass war veteran and treating him like crap his whole life, which lead him to being very cynical and also made him focus in on his brilliance at solving problems because his father never let him do normal kid things. This doesn’t turn people away from science at all, I think people want to be as brilliant as House, and not even have to be cynical about it, but better yet his three sidekicks(as i would call them), are very likable, normal people who help him and usually spark his brilliant solution to the problem most of the time. These people are doctors as well, and I would think that a lot of people would want to be like them. So, though I do understand where you are coming from here, I also think that there is a lot in these shows that attracts people to science as well. When I watch House, I too want to be able to solved medical mysteries, and anyone with half a brain should know that you can do it, without being as “impossibly brilliant” as Dr. House.

  16. fluffy says:

    One thing I really like about Bones is that not only is she not hunch-driven like most modern-cliche scientists, she actively eschews hunches, and insists that everything be explained by evidence. In fact, almost every hunch in the show turns out to be dead wrong. (Unfortunately, as of late it’s become almost comical in how the case turns out; there’s practically a guarantee that the murderer was the first person who says, “I hope you catch the guy who did this,” and in the cases that it isn’t, it usually turns out to be some character who isn’t mentioned or even hinted at before the denouement.)

    Also, the character of Bones is based on the real-life scientist Dr. Kathy Reichs. I don’t know if Dr. Reichs has as many skills and hobbies as Dr. Brennan, though. Sometimes Dr. Brennan comes off as a bit of a Mary-Sue, albeit one with very clumsy social skills.

  17. Grimalkin says:

    I quite like Bones. Not only is she a female scientist, she’s also an atheist. She isn’t abrasive about it, she lets her male counterpart talk about God, but she makes it very clear that she thinks it’s all a bit silly (I think she may even say at one point that a grown-up’s imaginary friend gets called “God”).

    Laih – The thing is that she doesn’t “do it all.” She does martial arts, science, and writes novels, but that’s pretty much it. She doesn’t have a life outside of learning. They’ve talked about this quite a few times in the show. When Angel (whatever his name is in Bones, I forget!) tells her that she needs to go out and have fun, she will just say that “this IS fun!”

  18. fluffy says:

    Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that the writers of the TV series base Dr. Brennan on the real-life Kathy Reichs, not on the character of the same name in Dr. Reichs’ novels, which I believe addresses Laih’s comments. (Dr. Reichs was pretty pleased when the writers decided to make their version of Dr. Brennan a writer as well – and of course, TV-Brennan’s novel’s protagonist name is Dr. Kathy Reichs!)

  19. fluffy says:

    Grimalkin: Agent Seely Booth. I actually saw Bones before I ever saw Angel, so whenever I see an Angel rerun I can’t help but wonder what the hell Agent Booth is doing dressed up as a vampire.

    At times she’s been pretty abrasive about her atheism but in the last season or so she’s eased off a bit and accepts that some people just need religion as a metaphor for things they can’t understand (which I definitely appreciate, since that’s my personal take on it as well). A couple seasons ago she could get pretty dickish about it, though.

  20. Max says:

    In the movie “21”, the chick told the main character that she heard him give a seminar that nobody understood. This was supposed to be a compliment that he’s such a genius.

    In some scenes, instead of dumbing things down for the audience, they actually tried to make simple things sound impressive. Like, instead of saying “two thirds”, the guy says “0.667”.

  21. jgranski says:

    I’m glad to see that, finally, Atheists are being allowed on TV. It frustrates me, though, that it’s usually portrayed as a character flaw. The well-adjusted atheist who enjoys Christmas presents is still a ways off.

    What I will say is that even though House’s atheism is seen as a character flaw, it’s usually implied that he’s correct. If memory serves, there has never been an episode where magic or faith actually was the solution. Granted, there have been a few ambiguous endings where it implies that one’s faith gave the patient the will to go on, or whatever, but, it’s a step in the right direction.

  22. John Paradox says:

    Another short lived TV series was PROBE, created by Isaac Asimov, staring Parker Stevenson (The Hardy Boys) as Austin James, ‘the world’s most intelligent man’. He also used Science to solve mysteries, though he did slightly fall for “UFO” woo in Plan 10 From Outer Space. The series only ran about six episodes before being canceled.
    He fits into the ‘genius character’ of Holmes, as well as Charlie Epps (NUMB3RS), and Gil Grissom (CSI). I admit I have not seen House nor Bones, and cannot comment on those, but Patrick Jane in THE MENTALIST is a bit too snarky for my personal preference.


  23. ruidh says:

    Another Holmsian detective who doesn’t quite fit the scientist mold is the lead character in Psych played by James Roday on the USA Network. Shaun Spencer is a person with tremendous powers of observation and the ability to draw conclusions who portrays himself as a psychic detective in order to work with the police. He is part salesman, part-con man who uses his abilities for good instead of evil. His flaw is his inability to have a serious, adult relationship with anyone. At least psychics as shown up as frauds by the audience who are in the know.

  24. Pete says:

    Don’t forget Walter and Peter from “Fringe”

    Walter fits the mad scientist and the absent-minded professor molds, but Peter is sharp and bright.

  25. Artoo45 says:

    Uh, Walter’s clinically insane and Peter’s a shadowy criminal. But that certainly doesn’t stop me from loving them both, or the extremely dubious plot lines . . . or the show’s “science” . . . or, well, you get the picture, it’s good fun, but science it ain’t.

  26. Ranson says:

    I agree with you, ruidh. My wife and I have lvoed Psych from the beginning, in no small part because he does his best to make it glaringly obvious that he’s scamming everyone, and they still don’t get it. It’s very Penn and Teller, in the sense that there are people who still believe they really are magic, despite showing how the trick is done.

  27. JRD says:

    I can’t believe no one has yet mentioned Gaius Baltar, particularly in the first two seasons of BSG.

  28. bigjohn756 says:

    Re: Bones. If you were a fictional character you, too, could be a world famous pathologist, author as well as an expert martial artist and then go home after work and whip up a gourmet meal for 20 to boot.

    Bones, of course, isn’t a chef(that I know of), but I have held from the beginning of the show that she has been ignored as a atheist, scientist television character. I watch every episode.

  29. Pete says:

    The majority are men, but there are some women. There was a show, not sure if it’s still on, called “The Closer” about a woman who goes through and solves old murder mysteries that were still open.

    There are also the women of the various CSI shows.

  30. Pete says:

    …I’ve never seen so many Petes and Peters in the same spot before.

  31. I’d like to apologize for my above post, but when handed such a great straight line, what could I do?

  32. Joe Chip says:

    How could you leave out Dana Scully?

  33. BillDarryl says:

    At least we’re moving forward from the stereotype of the Professor on Gilligan’s Island.

    Impossibly brilliant, yet so socially awkward he failed to notice not one, but TWO hot chicks stuck on the island with him.

    Pathetic, really.

  34. After a few years marooned, I’m thinking most guys would end up seeing three hot chicks on the island. [[[shudder]]]

  35. Bill says:

    Most glaring ‘nutty professor’ tendency of Gilligan’s Professor:

    He could build a fully functional radio from a coconut, but couldn’t build a raft given every freakin’ palm tree on that island.

  36. Ian Mason says:

    The ultimate oracle, the Zeus of the new Olympians is Gil Grissom. How can he ever be replaced?

  37. Darren says:

    Another show in the same pattern, but with a female lead and a little less cynicism is “Bones”. The science is often laughable, but the main character is smart, witty, attractive, and female; but with poor social intelligence (but not a loner). Her counterpart is lower on the overall intelligence, but with high social intelligence.

    I particularly like that they explain things to each other, and both appear to learn from the experience.

  38. Bill: “He could build a fully functional radio from a coconut, but couldn’t build a raft given every freakin’ palm tree on that island.”

    Oh, he could have, he just wouldn’t. If he builds a raft and returns to civilzation, he returns to all the stereotypes and archetypes attributed to scientists as outlined in Dr. N’s article. On Gilligan’s Island, he enjoys a monopoly on science and technolgy, and could be king if he wanted. It’s always good to be the king.

  39. Bill says:

    Devil’s Advocate: “If he builds a raft and returns to civilzation, he returns to all the stereotypes and archetypes attributed to scientists as outlined in Dr. N’s article. On Gilligan’s Island, he enjoys a monopoly on science and technolgy, and could be king if he wanted.”

    I’m feeling some kind of weird Gilligan’s Island / Lord of the Flies mashup coming…

  40. Max says:

    The horror! The horror!

  41. All kidding aside, it is well to recognize that almost all fictional drama employs the characterologically flawed protagonist (religious texts excluded) as the kernel upon which dramatic tension is built. It isn’t just scientists. You see it on cop shows (Shield, Law And Order, CSI, etc.), for example. Same with westerns. Even sitcoms, where just about every Dad is a moron, deeply flawed.

  42. The dilemma that drama creators face is that if they make their characters too realistic, no one will want to watch them. For characters to have entertainment value, they have to be better looking, or more courageous, or more foolhardy, or more idiosyncratic than the people we encounter in everyday society. I am reasonably sure that Dr. House, if realized as a member of my hospital’s medical staff, would be very quickly reported for “disruptive behavior,” probably ending up with his expulsion from the staff. On the other hand, no one would want to watch a show that featured me or other actual doctors in my hospital practicing medicine.

  43. Zebulon Pike says:

    Two Words, Iron Man.

    Granted he’s more of an engineer but IMO that’s splitting hairs when we are talking about creating flying armor with a ludicrous power supply. He goes very strongly against the scientist stereotype, he’s socially capable, good with the ladies and funny because of his wit and not his lack of co-ordination. I also like that they portrayed him as determined . He didn’t just build a suit, he built a prototype that nearly killed him and then he went back and tried again and again until he got it right.

  44. Max says:

    Just like Sarcos CEO, Dr. Stephen Jacobsen.

  45. Two other shows – The Big Bang Theory, sitcom with not one, but four geeky scientists. Eureka, which has just about every scientist stereotype covered in one character or another: geeky, awkward, vile, crazy, career-driven, etc. In Eureka, the sole ‘normal’ main character is the non-scientist, the local cop.

  46. Matthew Francis says:

    Re: comment 43. Ed, you say noone would want to watch a show featuring real doctors like yourself. Well, here in Australia we have a reality show called RPA, which is set in the Royal Prince Alfred hospital in Sydney which just shows day to day happenings such as patients consulting with doctors, having operations etc. I don’t watch it but from the few snippets I’ve seen here and there, it’s pretty boring. I don’t watch House either, but it looks far more interesting than RPA from what little I’ve seen of it.

  47. Feralboy says:

    The Professor did not build a radio out of a coconut. They brought the radio with them. I think he made batteries for it out of coconuts, however.
    The reason he didn’t notice the hot chicks was because it was the early sixties, and sex didn’t exist until 1967.