Intellectual Archetypes in Science Fiction Television

Intellectual

A staple of most science fiction is the smart guy (or girl!). That one person who, in terms of intellect, is leaps and bounds, head and shoulders above the rest of the ensemble.  He or she is always able to find the way out of any given situation, not by brute force or manual dexterity, but by being cool and collected under pressure and thinking through every situation.

Invariably, these types have always topped my lists of favorites literary characters since I was a kid.  Batman has always been my favorite comic hero.  Donatello rocked as a Ninja Turtle, and Egon was the best Ghostbuster.  I gravitate toward the intellectual characters because, possibly, I find them personally relative.

Maybe that’s why they’re such a mainstay in SF to begin with—all the SF fans out there like to have someone who epitomizes their potential and does the things they’ll likely never do.

Thinking about this, I realized that all of the shows I watch regularly are energized (for me, at least) by just this archetype: Stargate SG-1, Stargate Universe, Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, Dollhouse, and LOST. However, each particular series has its own unique interpretation of how the thinker functions within the fictional world of the show.

  • clip_image001[4]Dr. Daniel Jackson from Stargate SG-1 is the ultimate “I want to be that guy” intellectual for me—the nerd’s nerd.  He knows almost every language known to man (and some that aren’t!), runs and guns with the baddest-ass military folks, gets called in to consult whenever the mainstream smarties can’t figure something out, and fills out a tight T-shirt better than Brad Pitt in Snatch. In short, he’s got it all.
  • Gaius Baltar in Battlestar Galactica perfectly fills the role of “character who is too smart for his own good.”  Gaius is a bad person.  But it is because of his inherent flaws that he is interesting to watch.  He has the capacity to do almost anything and solve almost any scientific problem, but instead, he lies about it and comes up with complicated systems to keep from having to do any real work himself.  Baltar regularly sees how self defeating this behavior is, yet cannot stop the compulsion.  His ego craves the attention and his intellect craves the challenge.  The “real” solution would be too easy to come up with, and unfortunately creating this challenge for himself keeps him at odds with those around him who expect/depend on legitimate results.
  • clip_image002[4]If Daniel Jackson is the nerd’s nerd, then Eli Wallace from Stargate Universe is the geek’s geek.  He dropped out of MIT and joined a Stargate expedition because he was the best MMORPG player the government could find.  Eli epitomizes the “slacker called to duty” archetype all of  us computer-savvy SF lovers wish really existed. While he is young and naive to the way the people around him interact, his intelligence and optimism help solve problems that Nicholas Rush’s cynicism speeds past. Eli is the Everyman, an intellectual posterboy for Generation Y.
  • Walter Bishop (Fringe) was locked in a mental institution for seventeen years.  Potentially the greatest scientific mind of the century, his cognition has been addled to the point where his best ideas are comically mixed with his bizarre cravings and inklings.  Sure, he might be able to easily develop a method to communicate with the dead through electrodes and sensory deprivation chambers, but his mind works on such a level that such tasks pale in comparison to the wonders of  automobile seat-warmers and homemade root beer floats. His brilliance is enhanced through his comic relief.
  • Peter Bishop is Walter’s son, and he is his dad’s perfect complement.  Not content to be eccentric and out-there, Peter is the serious thinker who unscrambles whatever his dad says when trying to solve a problem.  Careful, mysterious, and emotionally attached to the few people he lets near him, Peter is the balance point that his father needs to ground himself in reality.  He hides his genius because to flaunt it before it becomes necessary could hurt those around him. He is the polar opposite of Gaius Baltar.
  • clip_image003[4]Topher Brink of my much beloved Dollhouse is egotistical and partially—if not mostly—misanthropic. Topher only cares about seeing how things work and advancing the scientific fields he helped pioneer.  If people get hurt, then so what?  Topher is often cited as having no conscience (though he grew one by the end of Season 2) or regret when dealing with other people, making him one of the most dangerous SF intellectual types.  Whereas BSG’s Baltar was dangerous because he wanted the challenge he got from the appearance of advancement, Topher’s unintentional and objective malice comes from advancement at any cost.
  • Dr. Nicholas Rush from Stargate Universe—the ultimate “I’m smarter than you so I don’t have to explain my actions” intellectual.  He has his own agenda, and often, the series makes the viewers think they know what it is.  Even the characters think they are sometimes coming close to a revelation.  And every time that happens, Rush does something completely unexpected yet brilliant and keeps the entire ensemble scrambling to keep up.  He is always one step ahead of even the cleverest characters, and that makes him dangerous because his moral ambiguity often swings to both sides.
  • clip_image004[4]And last but certainly not least: Benjamin Linus from LOST. Misunderstood to an extreme, Ben always has a plan.  While he may not have a degree in astrophysics or speak ancient languages, and he probably can’t invent a working Cylon detector (but who can, really?), Ben understands people so well that he plays with fate and manipulates circumstance to stay half a dozen steps ahead of anyone and everyone around him.  He might not be the best father, and he may not care for Stephen King (sigh), but he gets what makes people tick, and that’s why his smarts are so frightening.  Ben doesn’t need to invent mechanical doohickeys or conduct experiments to get results; he just has to look at the people around him and say a few words to trigger the right response.  The worst part of it all: they think it’s their idea.

Did I miss anyone?  Who would you add to the list of SF smarty-pants, and why?

Comments

  1. Longasc

    How could you forget the replacement for Daniel Jackson, Dr. Rodney McKay from SG: Atlantis. I do not remember, but maybe you plan on watching all of SG1 before watching SG:A.

    • I have seen the first season of SGA, and Rodney has really grown on me. I didn’t like him at first; his egotism really bugged me for a lot of reasons, but by the end of the first season, he really became fleshed out and it was very easy to tell that his ego was just a front for a level of insecurity about how smart he was.

      • Yeah, the early Rodney (even in SG-1 episodes) is a jerk. Eventually, he’s revealed to still have jerk tendencies, but it’s the all too common bluster to cover emotional weakness. It does make him more understandable in a way (I know far too many nerd jerks), but all in all, I prefer the Daniel Jackson flavor of nerd.

        High intellect need not come with some crippling emotional or moral counterweight. To be sure, some writers think that’s more interesting, but in my mind, it’s just too formulaic and packaged. It’s almost a trope now, like the brooding antihero.
        .-= Tesh´s last blog ..WoW Tempest =-.

        • Oh, and how could I have forgotten Spock and Data? I grew up with those guys, and often identify better with them than any of these other guys. Maybe that just means I’m weird, though.
          .-= Tesh´s last blog ../Salute =-.

          • To me, I never really associate Data or Spock with the “brainy” characters. I don’t know why. They were just kind of there, and yeah, they were thinkers, but in Star Trek, they make such a big deal that everyone who passes through Starfleet Academy is so well-rounded and intelligent that no one ever really stuck out above the crowd in my mind as being “Oh, the’s the smart guy.”

  2. I don’t think Gaius is a bad person. He’s screwed up, sure, but he’s not “bad”. Self-interest is not bad. I don’t think I’d call any archetype “bad”, and that includes Ben and Topher. In fact, I’d say it’s a mistake to judge archetypes at all along moral dimensions. (If they *are* easily judged, though, we’re not dealing with mythic archetypes anymore, just mediocre writing.)

    And Topher isn’t misanthropic, either. He doesn’t believe in “souls”, but he does have a conscience. In Belle Chose, he was very concerned about reviving Terry Karrens, who had no empathy; if Topher were truly misanthropic, he’d revel in reviving someone like that. Topher’s biggest problem might be not that he hates people, but that he hates himself. He really struggles to relate.

    Alpha, though… Alpha is misanthropic.
    .-= jane´s last blog ..Dollhouse Belonging =-.

    • Yeah, Alpha really is misanthropic, though I wonder how much one can actually qualify his misanthropy without taking into consideration the multiple personalities that affect him.

    • Jonas was interesting, too, since he was effectively flawed in his naive, limited experience. He suffered a bit from Marty Stu syndrome, but less so than Daniel, in my view.

      And I really wish they would have played up the “John Shepperd could have been in MENSA” angle more. He’s not stupid (neither is Jack O’Neill), but the writers seemed to forget that to let Rodney have more free reign. More than once, I’ve read theories that Rodney was an avatar for the writing staff, predictably a bunch of geeks with ego issues. Eli echoes that, as noted with the “dream job every gamer wishes were real” angle.

      Thing is… that just doesn’t work for me. It’s not *bad*, just… kind of lazy.

      And I’m probably just bitter that *spoiler*

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      The Atlantis writers killed off Carson Beckett, a brilliant guy with some shades of grey that was nevertheless very natural feeling. He wasn’t Marty Stu, he was a brilliant doctor out of his realm of experience, alternating between schoolboy enthusiasm and hard, cold pragmatism. He read more as a “realistic” character than Rodney ever will for me.
      .-= Tesh´s last blog ../Salute =-.

    • How can you hate Daniel Jackson? To me, it’s that going against archetype that makes him appealing. We so rarely get to see a genius character not be bumbling that I feel Jackson is a much more intriguing character than McKay. I like McKay, but not with the same adoration I do Daniel.