I had the occasion to meet Dr. Anne Simon, science advisor to The X-Files, when she came to the University of South Carolina on Monday, November 9th to give a talk on ribosome recoding in RNA viruses. I once used “The Post-Modern Prometheus” as a study guide for a Developmental Neurobiology course, so my comprehension of her talk was, at best, rudimentary. What I did understand was that she was delighted to be speaking to us, that she told an exciting story of the ways and workings of science and research, and that her facility for presenting hard data while engaging an audience is extremely important in science. Most of all, I learned that she truly loves her work—her science work and her “side-gig” as science advisor for The X-Files.
Mulder might say that Anne was fated to stay in South Carolina for an extra 12 hours to give a second talk, this one on The Real Science of The X-Files (she actually had a later-than-anticipated flight home); for that is what she did. Thus, I had another wonderful X-Files experience at her second lecture, but let me start at the beginning.
Anne spoke at the University of South Carolina Biological Sciences building in a basement classroom. The basement. Already, this is going well. I took a moment before the talk began to introduce myself to Anne, with whom I had thus far corresponded solely on Twitter. Anne was sitting in the front row, awaiting introduction to the audience by her friend Dr. Vicki Vance, a faculty member of the University of South Carolina’s Biological Sciences Department.
I didn’t anticipate having much time to talk. I was going to let her know that I was there because I had told her via Twitter that I was going to attend. She started talking about being on the set for the filming of Revival episode 4. Vicki came over to ask if I was the person from Twitter. Anne spoke of her enjoyment of Twitter and said something about the grand way that Chris would bring everything back together (accompanied by a illustrative unifying hand gesture). She proceeded with passionate detail about the Revival as Vicki began to introduce her for her non-X-Files, scientific presentation.
The X-Files was not entirely absent from her research presentation. She mentioned it at the beginning in announcing her talk to come the following day on The Real Science Behind The X-Files. She also mentioned that we would discuss The-X-Files at the reception proceeding the talk; she told us she would answer questions on her research or on The X-Files in the classroom after the talk itself, and said that try though she might have, she could not work The X-Files into her talk on ribosome recoding. The task of working The X-Files into each and every academic occasion reminds me of my own time in college and graduate school, discussions with professors, projects, papers, presentations, and acknowledgements sections at research conferences. What a nice trip down X-Files memory lane! Our audience had a few questions about ribosome recoding and a few more questions about The X-Files.
The reception was at Vicki’s house. We had some wine and lovely food with approximately two hours of intensive X-Files conversation. As much as I enjoy wine and lovely food, and I do enjoy both quite a bit, these paled in comparison to the miracle of two hours of X-Files conversation with most likely the only science advisor of a television show to have cultivated her own personal fan base.
Anne herself is very much a fan. I knew this from reading her book, The Real Science Behind The X-Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants (available here and highly likely to be signed by Anne if you meet her in person and bring your book with you). She has said in her book and in her interviews that she was a fan before she became the science advisor. She is also a family friend of Chris Carter, which makes all the aspects of her stories even more interesting.
Anne talked about being on set for episode 4 and having her own chair. The only people to have chairs were Chris, the script supervisor, the cinematographer (if there was room), David and Gillian (when filming), and her. Anne said she got up from her own chair when Chris was going to direct a scene to watch him work and then went back to her chair. Because some people working on the set did not recognize “Science Advisor” as a chair-holding position, they asked who she was and what work she did, and to her reply said, “Oh, you have an important job.” She said that she told them, “You’re job is so important. It’s so important what you do!”. None of us in the X-Files kingdom would think otherwise. Their jobs are important for the entire world. The X-Files, the arts: all of this is really fundamental.
Anne mentioned watching the filming of two opposite types of scenes for episode 4 on two consecutive days. I have not remembered each singular detail of our conversation, so the exact nature of these two scenes escapes me. I believe she said she watched a very scary scene one day and a spectacularly beautiful scene the next day. Whatever the momentous scene may be, Anne said it stands out and that I will know what it is when I see it.
Anne adores episode 6 as well, and, with her friend Dr. Margaret Fearon and Chris, wrote the story. To Anne’s glee, she and Margaret are receiving story credit, which we will see in the opening credits. Anne met Margaret Fearon when Margaret emailed Anne after reading Anne’s book. Margaret went on to help with the medical side of The X-Files. She and her husband, Blair, were the namesake of the parents in The X-Files: I Want to Believe. I hadn’t know the parents had names, because they were never addressed as such, although I suspected that the name “Fearon” in the character “Christian Fearon” probably came from Margaret Fearon. I love this story of where your interests can take you; Anne and Margaret each started their X-Files journey independently as fans, connected their work to their fandom, and now will get to see their names in lights, or rather credits, which is even better!
Anne mentioned a young actress in the Revival that she really liked that played an intense, young FBI agent. She also talked about a young Australian actor that discovered a love of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches during many takes of a scene in which he took increasingly larger bites of the sandwich. I asked about the rumor that Fox wanted The X-Files to have a younger focus with younger actors. She emphatically said that as long as David and Gillian are on board, as long as they are interested, the show will be about them. She said that Chris certainly feels that way, and Fox as well. If David and Gillian decide that they don’t want to do the show anymore, this (the younger actors) is the avenue that it might take. Having this perspective should take away any skepticism on the parts of hard core fans and allow us all to welcome the newer actors.
Anne talked about Chris trying to get the rumored episode 7 filmed. Gabe Rotter had written the script, and Chris was talking to Fox about letting them continue filming through episode 7. Anne said that everybody was on board; David and Gillian said that if filming began right away, they could stay, as long as they finished before they had to go to their various other filming activities. Unfortunately, Fox didn’t approve the episode for this round. Anne says she really believes there will be another season, a Season 11, and that this script will be in that season.
We discussed the issue of Mulder and Scully and their relationship. Anne addressed the problem of people so consumed by the “romance” element and whether Mulder and Scully are together as a couple that they vowed not to watch the Revival. I said that I wanted what was authentic for Mulder and Scully; to whatever point their relationship develops, I want it to be authentic, not something that somebody else wants, not an idealized fantasy. Anne agreed. She is encouraging everyone to trust Chris’s intention. This segued into a beautiful discussion of life and art and always having the characters in mind.
Revival Mulder starts down-and-out, but he comes back around to being his former self, as we glimpse in the previews. Part of the purpose of this, as always in The X-Files, is living life in spite of deception, destruction and disappointment. How Mulder comes out of what seems like an existence of cloistered obsession into life and meaningful, purposeful work and how Scully serves in affecting this change and being affected by it will be a great journey to take with these characters. That’s the greatest thing, after all, that Mulder and Scully are on a journey, both individually and together.
Anne talked about how much Chris cares about the characters, saying that they always have the characters and their reactions in mind: “Scully wouldn’t do that!” They think about these things. I asked if she thought Chris has Mulder and Scully in the back of his mind all the time, so that he could dip into his imagination and think what Mulder and Scully would be doing right now, or is it more that he has a project, a movie or tv show, when he has to recreate Mulder and Scully and give them a backstory. She said she thought that he doesn’t think about them constantly, but could imagine them at any time. How real are the characters to their creator? I think this is fascinating.
Anne talked a lot about working with Chris. She talked about his work schedule while filming, which was rigorous, to say the least. She talked about his awareness and sensitivity to what people think of his work. I think Chris comes across publicly as very cerebral, but I also think this is the public face of many highly creative and intelligent people whose creative works are public and emotions private. Anne sent Chris reviews of the New York Comic Con showing of “My Struggle,” the first episode of the Revival, at his request, and said that he was grateful that people were so pleased with the episode and that it was positively received. I said something toward the end of our conversation about Chris working from his heart, not his ego, and Anne said, “He has no ego,” and talked about how much he cares about the fans, whether we realize this or not.
Anne elaborated on the episode 4 set and her experiences talking to David, Mitch, and The Lone Gunmen. Tom Braidwood stills yells “cut!” on occasion, harkening back to his days as an assistant director. Mitch was really happy to be there and wants to keep coming back to The X-Files. David was happy to be there, really involved in his work, and had enthusiastic ongoing conversations with Anne in between filming scenes. Both David and Mitch have daughters interested in science. From this, we may have a new generation of influence between The X-Files and the scientific community!
Gillian wasn’t on the set during Anne’s visit, but Anne told a story of seeing Gillian at a benefit dinner that was a sort of high-end affair. Gillian heard that two girls that couldn’t afford tickets were waiting outside in the cold in the hope of seeing Gillian as she left, so Gillian went outside, talked to them, and brought them into the event. I told a story about going to the 2011 Conversation with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny and how genuinely attentive Gillian and David were to everyone, including one person that was more nervous. They focused on her and paid attention to her comments and her question. Anne nodded and said, “That’s why people love them. They really are nice people.”
For the next day’s talk on The Real Science of The X-Files, Anne advised me to arrive early. In my mind, I thought “X-Files convention” early, which would be many hours in advance. On the flip side is “academic” early, which is a minute or two before the event begins to a minute or two after the event has begun. Anne began with the story of how she and her parents had come to know Chris, how she started watching The X-Files, not associating it with the Chris Carter she knew from home, and how her mother set fate in motion by suggesting that Chris call Anne for science advice when working on the episode that would become “The Erlenmeyer Flask.”
Anne told us about Chris developing the stories and writing the scripts, showed her suggestions and corrections, complete with slides of scripts with her handwritten edits, and showed video clips from the finished episodes for “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” “The Host,” “Redux,” “The Beginning,” and “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” For each episode, she described what Chris had in mind for the story, the ideas and techniques that she told him would or would not be plausible, and what resulted from the compromises between the requirements for the stories and the accuracies of science.
One of the best stories was the story of the flies that inspired “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” Chris, inspired by Anne’s graduate school story of Proboscipedia (fly with legs coming out of its mouth), wanted to see the flies and meet Dr. Thomas Kaufman, the Indiana University professor that had originally introduced Anne to the mutant flies. Chris visited Dr. Kaufman’s lab (which was filled with X-Files fans as well as experimental flies) and returned with a film loop of a fly embryo in development, a fly photo taken with a scanning electron microscope, a hand-drawn diagram showing fly development, and a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory t-shirt. Chris used all of these items, an imaginatively-tinkered story of fly experimentation leading to human genetic experimentation, mixed in a healthy dose of Cher and Jerry Springer, and produced “The Post-Modern Prometheus.”
Let us consider this for a moment. Had one of Anne’s college professors at the University of California at San Diego not recommended Anne attend graduate school at Indiana University, she would not have seen Thomas Kaufman’s slides of Proboscipedia, would not have had those flies in mind to mention to Chris, and would not have had the occasion to send Chris to Indiana University to learn from Kaufman about Proboscipedia, get learning materials and episode props, and write and film “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” We might not have “The Post-Modern Prometheus” now if not for that UC San Diego professor then.
Clyde Bruckman might have become obsessed with thoughts of all of the variables that would have to occur in Anne’s life and in Chris’s life to result in Anne working with Chris on the science of The X-Files and on the very particular outcome of “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” So many stories about The X-Files involve serendipitous discoveries and outcomes that hinge on seemingly random or unexpected turn of events that we could never predict. Who knows where an idea will lead?
You can follow Marlene on Twitter @MarleneMHS.