Talking to Anne Simon is really easy, even though I’m always aware of how amazingly intelligent and wise she is, and how… I’m not really the scientific kind, but I try. The resident Science Advisor for The X-Files and current professor at the University of Maryland, is also a virologist and the author of the book The Real Science Behind The X-Files. She has been recently reaching out to fans via Twitter, bridging the gap and bringing answers to so many questions that have plagued us over the years.
Perhaps one of the things I really appreciated the most about our conversation was just how very excited she is to share the knowledge, her constant curiosity and just how personable she is. Her involvement with the show goes back to the very first years of The X-Files, and she shared the story amidst a few candid laughs.
To read the first part of our conversation, click after the jump.
“I’ve known Chris [Carter] for a long time. Chris married my mother’s best friend, Dori. He was over for the major family gatherings: Thanksgiving, Passover, you know... he was there a lot. I just knew him as the really cute blonde surfer.” She snickers. As most of you know, Carter’s love for surfing and surfing spots all over the world have taken him to very diverse places since his beginnings as an editor at Surfing Magazine.
“I asked him just recently how many surfboards he has and he laughed, and says he doesn’t know. Every vacation he takes, he goes surfing.” Simon continues. She also knew of his previous work as a writer at the famous sports publication, and she followed the Carters' transition through The Disney Company. For Anne, walks of life placed her as an assistant professor at University of Massachusetts in the early 90’s. “ I was perusing TV Guide to see if there were any decent shows coming up - this was of course the pre-internet days - and I noticed this show called The X-Files. It sounded really interesting. I wasn’t that confident it was gonna be any good, because it was on FOX and they weren't known for its dramas, but I thought well here’s this character that’s supposed to be a scientist and I love science-fiction and it just sounded kinda cool.”
What began as a 5-minute tryout of this new show evolved into a weekly appointment for Anne that she shared with her then husband. “It was so good and it was so unexpected,” She continues. But with the popularity of such a name, she didn’t associate the Chris Carter on the closing credits to her family friend, and the link remained unnoticed. Anne continued to watch and enjoy the show from the very first episode.
“One day, I get a call from my mother and she goes, “'Dori’s Chris,' that’s what she always called him, 'Dori’s Chris has a new tv series called The X-Files.'" Fond memories of that call tell how Anne was just so excited about the show, especially when her mother elaborated further. “She said: 'Chris is gonna be really excited to hear that because he needs help with the science and he wanted me to call you to find out if it was okay that he called you and ask you some science questions.'”
Back then Simon was the only scientist Carter knew besides his own brother who is more into physical sciences. Anne was delighted to help out and they connected right away. “We started talking about the last episode of the first season (“The Erlenmeyer Flask”) and he wanted that episode to let the viewers know that this was real. That extraterrestrials were real. So that was a really big episode in the mythology. Of course, it wasn't called the mythology back then. But that was a really big cliffhanger episode.”
Carter had lots of questions to nurture the script he was honing for the 1st season finale of the show, and Simon was able to read through the draft of the script once he had completed it. She ventured in, providing some changes, especially those aimed to bring accuracy to the terminology used by the characters. “One funny one I remember was instead of sequencing the human genome, it was “sequencing the human gene”, and I was like “Oops, little problem there.” It would have been a big deal for people watching, so I made a few little changes to it and then I was just amazed, he used every single thing that I changed and all of the science that I suggested.”
The cherry on top of Anne’s excitement happened when Carter named a scientist after her. She’d go on to become his personal science advisor, and they’d share discussions during the script process throughout the entire nine years of the show.
WRITING SCIENCE THEN. WRITING SCIENCE NOW
Back when The X-Files began its run, being a geek or a nerd was probably a definition that was ostracizing. Nowadays, partly because of the road that the show has paved since then, and because of many other shows that followed like The Big Bang Theory, Cosmos, and Scorpion, among others, and through personalities on the rise like Will Wheaton, Joss Whedon, Felicia Day, Nathan Fillion and the whole crew from Mythbusters, being a nerd now is just… cool. Time has passed and television has changed, but it also means that there’s more awareness, with the overwhelming presence of social media and all that it entails.
“Has your job become any easier? Or do you have to push yourself harder?” I ask.
“Well it’s not really a matter of pushing myself. You know, the character of Scully is so well developed. We know her, we love her. I don’t know if the fans realize how much we - and certainly Chris - think about Mulder and Scully as being real people. You know, "Mulder wouldn't say that", or "Scully, yeah, she’d like that." We talk about them as though they are real to us. Scully has always been real and so I think that a part of making science and scientists a little cooler, a little more accepted, I think The X-Files played a role in that and I’m thrilled it played a role in that because nobody should be teased, and people should want to go into science. Science is a great field to go into.”
“With the revival we’re fifteen years in the future.” She explains noting that much time, more or less, has passed since we last saw our heroes on the actual TV show. “There’s a lot more that we actually know about science and about biology now, so there’s a lot more cool things that we can do. Everyone is really excited about these new episodes, and I don't know if the excitement has come through for everyone.” She recalls calling Dori Carter when she heard the news of The X-Files revival, wanting to share ideas right away, but Chris cut her short, not wanting to spoil the magic of that first draft of the first episode he was crafting at the time. It would eventually become “My Struggle”.
“He sent me the first script and my idea just fit so well, it was like we were on the same wavelength. I think that people are a little bit more sophisticated about the science. [They] know a little bit more now than they did then and I think they are accepting of science and shows a little bit more.” She hopes that the fans and audience in general appreciate and love the two mythology episodes slated to be part of the six-episodes event, as those are the ones that she actively worked on.
Working with creative types can be a challenge when it comes to sticking to facts, especially when it comes to writing fiction, but this doesn’t faze her.
“Well Chris, you know, he’s a genius, and I don’t say that lightly.” She begins. “He is such a wonderful writer. I wish every one actually had a chance to read the actual scripts because the detail in there, it's like you're watching a movie when you’re reading it.” Simon enjoys the fact that Carter appreciates really interesting science. But she’s realistic about the different perspectives they may have over a subject, and she was glad when he loved the ideas she’s brought in for the revival. “This is the most excited I’ve ever been because I’ve presented him with lots of ideas over the years, and they didn't quite end up on the air.”
But a very important and very famous one did: the story behind “The Post-Modern Prometheus”.
“Do you wanna hear about that?” She asks, giddy.
“Of course!” I exclaim, as if I would ever pass on hearing about the genesis of one of the most respected and imaginative episodes of the series, and one of Chris Carter’s favorites.
“So, I was visiting him at the lot and he was in his trailer.” She remembers how his office was very small considering, back then. “I was just sitting on the couch and I said, “Chris, you know I’ve got a great idea for an X-Files monster. What about this thing with legs coming out of its mouth? Or legs instead of antennae, poking out of its head?” And he said “Oh my god, what is that?” She went on to explain the nature of the fruit fly, as it ends up mentioned in the episode. Even with its small size, she considered that it would make a great monster on the show, one that presented the genetic manipulation that we are witness to. ”It's so easy, it's just one mutation and you get these legs coming out of the mouth instead of this proboscis.”
Chris was really excited about the idea as Anne proposed it, but he needed to investigate further, much further than as she comically mentioned “putting some bananas out to attract the subjects.”
“I told him that the repository for these flies was at Indiana University which is where I went to graduate school.” Chris wanted to go right away and see the flies, but this became sort of a challenging moment for Simon, because it involved reaching out to fellow scientists and she didn’t know if they would be keen on sharing the experience with a TV show.
“The person who was in charge of the flies was a scientist named Tom Kauffman who I took a class from, and he was part of a genetics program. I got my PHD in Genetics. But it was fifteen years later, and I didn't think he’d even remember me.” There were perhaps valid reasons for her to be hesitant but Carter didn’t let her off the hook. “Chris said, “No, I want you to call him and tell him that I'm gonna call him, and that I wanna come by and see the flies.”
Anne remembers how this was a funny phone call. “I was helping with The X-Files and I don't think at the time people knew I was doing that. And you don't want to come off as not being a serious scientist, especially to someone who was your professor. I didn't know if he'd ever heard of the show, but I went ahead and I called, got him on the phone.” She wasn’t even sure if her former professor remembered her, but she went about demonstrating the qualifications of the person reaching out to him. “First I told him all the good stuff: that I was a professor, and I’m an editor of this journal, and I’m doing this, and I won this award, and I’m trying to tell him, "I’m a serious scientist," you know? But then I said, “I also help with the science of this tv show called The X-Files…”
And that’s when surprise and the always mysterious phenomenon of this show took over. “He went “The X-Files? I love The X-Files. My wife loves The X-Files. My class loves The X-files. My lab loves The X-Files!” After all this unexpected eager praise, she surprised Kauffman by letting him know that Chris Carter was keen on speaking about his research and excited about visiting the facilities. ”He's gonna call you, so when he does call, it's not a prank call, so answer it!” She laughs.
Chris Carter spent the whole day with Tom Kauffman at his lab, sharing lunch and then seeing the flies that served for inspiration for the Noir episode. “Tom was telling him all about why he was working on all these flies with legs coming out of their mouths, or double sets of wings, and all these other things,” she recounts, including how he came back with plenty of materials and props used in the production: a Cold Spring Harbour t-shirt for the fly meeting that was used by one of the actors, Tom Kauffman’s diagram, and a film loop. “But the first thing Chris did when he got back was that he called me and he said, “I have no clue what Tom said to me. Why is he working on these flies?” She laughs again.
“I gave him an answer that actually was the answer that Scully gives Mulder in the show. Not everyone can explain things - a lot of scientists can’t - they use words that non-scientists can’t understand.” So after easing Chris into this knowledge, he went off to create one of her favorite episodes that was born out of a casual conversation on his couch, about flies.
But even when the realm of possibilities is enormous, one always wonders if there was there ever a point where the ideas in a script surpassed plausibility. “Did you always try to put theories behind some of the more outlandish ideas?” I wonder.
“Well, you know it's a science fiction show. So what I say to Chris all the time is: Aliens can do anything. It doesn’t have to be real because aliens can do it! So, that gives you an out for being able to-- it's like tagging someone with their small pox vaccine. Like, how do you do that? So, I came up with something. But it’s not something that's actually possible.” They’re cautious as well for the influence that they might have on the viewer. “For a lot of the really dangerous stuff, you can come up with some pretty scary stuff, science wise, but you don't wanna give anybody ideas, so it’s best if it isn't something that's actually doable, but certainly…” she giggles after rationalizing and bringing back the levity of it all, “the aliens can do it.”
She assures that imagination is one of the main ingredients for her recipe and recalls a moment that never ended up in the show. “I think it was something he was thinking about for the next season before it was cancelled, but Chris asked me, “I need you to come up with how someone could break out in reptilian scales... And it has to be something they ate.” That was the briefing that Carter gave her at the time and realistically this is impossible with those strict requirements, “but there actually are atavistic genes that we have, that mammals have. Mammals have regeneration genes that are not used… and so maybe they can get turned on.” She pondered trying to find a place for this storyline that could be close to the science known to her. “Maybe they eat some hormone and activate some atavistic genes and now they have reptilian scales.” Anne ends up justifying; for her the important part is using your imagination to come up with details and links that make the science sound good and believable within that realm.
“I think about The X-Files though, what I really wanted, and Chris really wanted, is that what the scientists do would be very real. There are certain things scientists can do and a way that scientists would think, and that we always wanted to be very real.” She found it easy since she’s a scientist as well, always pondering what another scientist like Scully would do in a certain situation. “She’d do what I would do. That’s simple. Not for Chris because he’s not a scientist but it was easy to imagine for me. So a lot of it is just keeping what the scientists were doing real and to try to explain things that have no explanation.”
“So you’re Scully?” I tease.
“Well, no,” she laughs, somewhat bashful. “I was helped especially in the last couple years when things got really medical by my friend Margaret Fearon. And Margaret is a real life Scully. She’s the Scully. I’m just a scientist. But she's a medical doctor, she's a researcher, an infectious disease expert, a very important person in Canada.” Fearon was in charge of the SARS epidemic, the quarantines and the procedures to fight the virus. “She is in charge of keeping viruses out of the blood supply right now. She has bright red hair and is an X-Files fanatic.” Fearon is known to be an avid X-Phile who knows every single episode backwards and forwards, which facilitated Simon’s work.
As you may remember, this is also the name of one of the characters in IWTB.
“What’s the one piece of outlandish science that we’d be surprised to find out is true?” I ask and besides the case in PMP, there’s one that’s equally as scary. “The episode where people came down with prion diseases, (“Our Town”) I mean, that could all be true. It happened a little quickly, but that was all quite true. The idea that you could come down with a deadly disease from eating people is very true. I didn’t help on that episode, but whoever did, they got it exactly right.”
Come back on Monday, August 24th for the second part of this awesome interview with Anne Simon, and find out the answer to one of the most discussed science moments of The X-Files.