This is a continuation of our exclusive interview with Anne Simon, The X-Files science advisor. The first part was posted on Friday, Aug. 21st and can be found Here.
REAL REALITY VS. DRAMATIC REALITY
Telling a story is not always a documentary event. To play with the dramatic moments of a fictional narrative and evoke the emotions needed to effectively communicate that drama, you can’t always stick strictly to the black and white facts. So, is it okay to manipulate the facts to the point where the science won't be as accurate for the sake of telling a story?
“As a scientist watching any show, watching The X-Files, does that bother you?” I ask.
“That happens a lot. You know, I can come up with all of the science and Chris will say, ‘Well, you know it’s not visual enough. We need something more visual.’ So you come up with something that's more visual but maybe now not completely accurate.” And then Anne takes on a subject that has been the center of so many discussions in the fandom over the years.
“There was the episode where Scully did that whole Southern blot.” You can tell that Simon has received her fair share of criticism over this scientific scene in the show. “You know, she wanted to see if she was infected by this alien virus and she had to do the entire experiment. So Chris had me come up with how can she figure out she’s been infected by the alien organism. And I said, “Well can we make it a virus, because I’m a virologist?”
“I told him she could do a Southern blot, which at the time was state of the art. Now today, she’d probably sequence her genome or something.” Anne explained to him with detail what it entailed, but it didn’t match the timeline within the script. “I said: “It’s not possible! You can’t do it [a southern blot] in three hours.” But after much stubborn discussion, Simon caved in, but still tried to find some kind of rationalization as to how the three-day-long experiment could be done in record time. “I said, can you at least - because it was known that I was helping with the show at this point - since you can't do this experiment in three hours, you have to make a radioactive probe, a piece of DNA that will attach to the virus DNA in your genome, we call it a probe, and you have to make it really radioactive to get a signal and you need a signal in about 10 minutes, you know it would have to be extremely radioactive. And I said, “Well can we at least have the scientists say in the scene, ‘It’s not gonna happen. Not unless you have a blazing hot probe...”
Chris listened and conceded, but neither of them realized that it could become a problem for the censors at FOX, “because you know, 'blazing hot probe…”' She laughs. The term got into the episode and Scully does a Southern blot in three hours even though that’s impossible. She recounts how for years after that, people would come up to her and name that event as the least accurate thing about the entire show. “And I thought, well maybe the disembodied head of a twin communicating psychically was a little more out there than a three-hour Southern… but they didn't seem to think so.”
“We’re still hearing about it to this day.” I confirm. When we asked fans for questions for this interview this was one of the most mentioned ones and then over the years, in the halls of the XFN offices, it has been mentioned so.many.times...
She laughs. “I mean, what’s her protocol? I go and give talks, my science talks, I really am a scientist, and people would say, “Oh, can I get Scully’s protocol for doing a Southern blot in three hours?” And it’s like, yeah right! Of course I’ve done hundreds of Southern blots; I know exactly how long it takes.” But what Chris Carter needed for the show needed to serve the drama. Even with that little add on, a character denying the possibilities, and a justification, it never convinced the nitpicky fans. “So yeah, the three hour Southern… I know. I know! I tried.”
It is a lot of negotiation when it comes to creation, for writers, and for advisors, even when those ones actually have facts to back up the truth. “You can try for a little bit; Chris and I are friends, so I can try for a little bit, even with the recent scripts I’m reading I can say, ‘Wouldn’t this be a little better?’ And he’d go, ‘No, no, it’s gotta be this.’ And I’d say, ‘Well what about--’ ‘No, no, it’s gotta be this.’ And I’m like, ‘Ok then, that’s great!” I imagine that she’s shrugging her shoulders as she laughs at the writer’s determination. “Your job isnt to change his vision, it’s to add to his vision, and so thats what I try to do.”
“If Scully were to believe in something outrageous, what do you think it would be? Would she have some out-of-this-world scientific thing to be obsessed with?” One fan ponders, and Anne thinks about it for a few seconds.
“I mean it would totally change the character.” She responds. “She wants proof. She, like any scientist, you want evidence. You look at all the evidence and you come up with what you think is going on. That’s what we do in science all the time. So if she was doing anything other than that, she wouldn't be the scientist that she is. So it’s hard for me to think of anything she might believe in.”
“Obviously, she’s had so many experiences in the first nine years that she-- you know, aliens are real in the world of Mulder and Scully,” she continues. “There are aliens, and there are conspirators, and there are lots of very unusual things going on, and so by now I think Scully believes that, but anytime she’s faced with any strange phenomenon, even though she believes in certain things now, she would still want to see the evidence. The thing is that she's seen enough evidence and experienced enough that she does believe in aliens.”
And still, it took an awful amount of time for Scully to finally let go and believe, some say that it took her own abduction to fully shake her skepticism, even when the seeds were definitely planted before that, as Anne reminds us. “Until 'The Erlenmeyer Flask', I didn't know if the aliens were gonna be real or not just by watching the show. And then it was clear that Chris wanted them to be real. So, they’re real.”
“Do you think there’d ever be something scientific that The X-Files could not make believable?” a fan wanted to know, and Simon laughs.
“I think The X-Files has done plenty that's not believable, it's a science fiction show.” Even though many of our most die-hard fans do delve in the believer end of the spectrum. “But I'm really, really waiting to see what people think of these six episodes, especially the ones that I know, one and six, because it’s really scary.”
“You have to be really careful as a science advisor that you're not putting ideas into people's heads and that you're not feeding doubts that people already have. You don't wanna feed into these conspiracy theories that people have about things that are really important.” One of the things that Anne has been following intensively in the last thirty years are the topics around GMOs.
Simon punctuates that the way that we farm today is completely wrong: horrible pesticides and herbicides that runoff into rivers, and even other more alarming consequences such as killing off the coral reefs and amphibians. Those are quite alarming to Simon, and she notes that the way that we farm today is detrimental to the environment and the planet, but there’s also the flipside to this situation. The part where one situation is not strictly linked to the other.
“People have kind of targeted GMOs like there's some kind of conspiracy that these companies are doing to add horrible things to our food and it’s so wrong. It’s not real! It’s innocuous.” It’s hard to fight a war against a notion that’s been so ingrained lately, with so many movements calling for everything organic and the minimal manipulation of produce. “You know I like to say I’m a scientist, I’m an environmentalist, and I choose to eat GMO because it’s better for the planet. So one thing I’m not gonna do on The X-Files is do anything that will feed into people's paranoia, that some people have, about GMO. Sometimes Chris might have a suggestion and I’m like, 'No. We can’t do that. Please don’t do that.'" So, there are moments where Anne puts her foot down.
“I used to teach an honors seminar course on GMO. And 24 out of 25 of the students routinely were anti-GMO, taking the course so that they can find more ammunition against it, kind of.” After the whole course had taken place and everyone did their own research, Anne found a welcoming result. ”Twenty-four became wildly enthusiastic about it and they kept asking me why are all these things on the internet, why aren't people speaking up? Why isn’t all of this known? They discovered what was really going on. Knowledge equals wisdom and I wish that more people accepted that.”
The influence of The X-Files and everything associated to 1013 has always raised eyebrows when it came to predicting the future at times, presenting novel science, or studying and exposing situations out there. Many remember The Lone Gunmen pilot and how it was very similar to 9/11, airing before the World Trade Center attacks. There’s a whole culture who believes that Chris Carter can predict the future. “Besides buying into how spectacular this is, do you think we can find middle ground?”
“There’s this idea that scientists should be helping on tv shows and movies more. The National Academy of Sciences has an exchange program to try and put scientists together with movie producers and writers so that there is a little bit more scientific accuracy and that scientists are not portrayed in a bad light.” She continues “In the past the scientists were all mad scientists: Nerds, and geeks, and untrustworthy, the ends justify the means, and all of that - they had no personality, didn't care about people. This is a caricature, and I got to dispel a lot of that with Scully.” For Anne, it was so rewarding that this was the first time a scientist was being portrayed in a favorable way on television and part of the reason of why she loves the show and is glad she’s got to be associated with it in her own small way.
“And shaping a woman scientist at that…” I add.
“It was just so wonderful to make her the scientist and not Mulder. That was the reverse of how most people would do it.” Simon remembers interaction on Twitter when Carter had her read the new scripts with the new character: Agent Einstein. She had the suspicion that it was a guy until she was on set to witness filming for the fourth episode of the revival. “I turned to Chris and said 'It’s a woman?' and he gave me this big laugh because he knew I would think it was a guy. And instead it's another really strong woman character. I love Chris for this, that he’s putting strong women characters on TV.” This is one of Simon’s favorite sides to Chris Carter’s character development, now with three strong women at the head of the narrative on The X-Files.
“What do you think of Annabeth Gish coming back?” I ask.
“I think it's terrific. I remember meeting her on the set and she's just a lovely person, a great actress, and Chris was really trying to get her and put her back in and I think it’s such a wonderful idea.” The more the merrier.
Anne seems full of interesting stories that she’s gathered over the years, including this one about Gillian Anderson.
“She was doing a fundraiser for Neurofibromatosis, Inc. and the society called me up and asked me if i wanted to participate.” As you may know, Aaron Anderson passed away from complications of the illness a few years ago and the actress leads a fundraising organization to promote research and relief for patients, families and friends. Anne recalls that this was a very prestigious affair, that included a high ticket price for attendees and a number of high profile political personalities. She herself is close to the condition as her niece suffers from it.
“[Gillian] was going from table to table, and it was a lovely affair because there were all of these fathers bringing these young girls who were up to about 16 or 17 years old in these ball gowns, and they’d flown in from all over the country for this benefit, and some of them had brought collections of well wishes from their classmates to give to her and she was just so sweet. So she goes around to all of these tables, and this isn’t even the good part, she spent all this time with these girls, you know, private time, photos, talking to them and it was very sweet.” Anderson then went to find out that there were two girls standing in the cold outside the hotel hoping to catch a glimpse of the actress. “So she got up, she excused herself, she went outside. She met them both, she took pictures with them, she talked with them. Those girls had been standing out there in the cold, probably for a couple hours and for her to just go out there and be so generous with her time…” Anne is really taken by Gillian Anderson’s generous spirit.
THE STICKY BLACK STUFF
“A lot of people have asked us about black oil. What is it? Is it a virus, an entity? In layman's terms?” And really, so many X-Philes want to know, and she finds it very amusing.
“Originally, Chris had something very different in mind for the Black Oil. He wanted it to be kind of this entity that was like a virus that once it got inside you, the virus became this hideous creature with big eyes and claws and you know burst out of you. I explained to him that a virus couldn't do anything like that; a virus was just nucleic acid surrounded by a coat, there's not a horrible hideous creature.” So they changed it around: it's still a virus, but one that gets inside a cell and reprograms it. The virus causes the cell to activate all of the junk DNA; it rearranges itself into actual genes, the cell starts dividing, and then becomes an alien.
“So what it means is that we were the aliens,” she states. “We have in our DNA. This was so ancient. He wanted the black oil to be the original inhabitant of the planet, but it turned into that it was ancient because it was in all of us, it was part of all of us, the developmental program was there in us already. Does that make any sense?”
It does to me, but I can already hear so many of my own staff bickering their way into the break room with this.
“So it was more like a catalyst?” I continue.
“Yeah, it basically was my idea,” she explains. “It’s based on the bacterium called agrobacterium tumefaciens and that’s actually the bacterium that's used to make GMO plants the old way.” As Anne explains, when the bacteria contacts a plant cell, it transfers a piece of its DNA into the plant and reprograms it. The plant cell loses loses the information of what it was, becoming this undifferentiated mass of tissue. Almost like a cancer, this group of cells becomes a home to the bacteria.
“By activating genes that are normally dormant and are considered junk because they are not actual genes, they don't look like genes, but they can rearrange like your immune system rearranges. It can rearrange into genes and then start the developmental program up for the alien.” She adds.
“Well but then you have Mulder who gets infected with it, and Scully gets infected with it but they don't react the same way to it. You also have Scully with a chip in her neck.. did it affect the way--? I hit her back with my own X-Files science.
“They did take that out--” and she means to elaborate but she catches herself. “All I can say is that things will become clear by the sixth episode, an awful lot will be explained.”
Anne also advised to not read too much into the gossip out there, or even the fleeting interpretation many fans make of her tweets.
“People should just enjoy the ride and wait until January?” I suggest.
“Yeah, exactly. A lot of what I’ve seen online has been just… wrong. So wrong.” She laughs wholeheartedly. “The thing that I can say is that people are really excited on the set. Really excited. Everyone’s excited.”
“I think people are just starved for you know... something... anything.” I explain.
“I’m just looking for... did it remind me of the original? Because I just love the original episodes.” She admits. “And it did, it reminded me of the original episodes, so that why I got so excited.” She also shares that her colleague, Margaret Fearon is also very excited about having The X-Files back on TV. “I’m really hoping that it influences a new generation of young people to want to go into science or to learn more about science and have a positive opinion of scientists.”
“Do you think there will be a season eleven?” I ask.
“I want it so badly. And I literally don’t know. But I want it.” She answers excitedly. “I’m not gonna be the person to obsess over every detail, will there be, won’t there be? But do I want another season? Absolutely! The person I spent the most time talking to on the set with was Mitch Pileggi and it was really clear he wanted another season. He was just having such a great time.”
And it is clear for everyone that the growing excitement as the weeks and months go by can’t be explained by many, and we still have quite a few months to go. Fans around the internet and out of it, don’t know of a world, like today, where The X-Files exist. Sometimes it sounds like a fable that this is actually happening. So Anne still tries to connect and ease us into that transition as much as she can.
“Chris emailed me and said, “Tell the fans, I say ‘Hi.’”
Thank you so much to Anne Simon for such candid, knowledgeable and open conversation with us. You can still get Anne's book, The Real Science Behind The X-Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants. on Amazon. The X-Filesrevival premieres on January 24th, 2016.