Anne Simon, virologist and professor, works behind the scenes to ensure that the scientists discovering those crazy phenomena are doing it right.
Yellow rain falls from the sky in a sudden freak storm, and in the aftermath, a woman is found dead with her face partially eaten away. A serial killer is able to reverse his aging process after he is experimented on using salamander cells. An ice core sample taken from a meteor crater is revealed to contain extraterrestrial worms that infect their hosts, driving them into uncontrollable rages.
All of these sound too extraordinary to be real—but, then again, they've also been episodes of The X-Files. In its nearly decade-long history, the show ran for nine seasons (and two feature films), and was praised for its masterful storytelling and complex characters. (It was announced in March of this year that the show would be coming back for a limited miniseries, which will premiere on January 24, 2016.)
While some of the storylines on The X-Files often sway closer to science fiction, they have real science at their roots. It's this science that grounds these stories and makes them feel convincing, makes us all channel our inner Fox Mulder and want to believe. Fans who work in STEM fields have praised the show for its realistic depictions of science. Joselyn Rojas, an X-Files fan and medical doctor who hosts a small Twitter segment called #XFScienceSundays, is one of them. "The fact that they knew how to walk that fine edge between reality and science fiction made this show a treat to scientists such as myself," she said.
It should be no surprise that The X-Files did such a great job of portraying real science—because the show had a real scientist helping behind the scenes.
"That's the kind of thing I can really help with, coming up with something that sounds correct even though there's no chance of it ever happening."
Anne Simon, author of the book The Real Science Behind the X-Files, is a virologist and professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Maryland, College Park, and was a science adviser to creator Chris Carter on the original show as well as the revival miniseries. She spoke to Motherboard about her experience working on the show, the truth behind the science portrayed on-screen, and what we can expect when The X-Files returns early next year.
MOTHERBOARD: For those who don't know the story, talk to us a little bit about how you got started on The X-Files.
Anne Simon: I actually knew Chris Carter for a long time. I've known him for about 30 years because he married my mother's best friend, and this was well before The X-Files when he was an editor of Surfing Magazine and he was a big-time surfer. So he was over for dinner a lot, all the big holidays. I went off to school and got my PhD and my first faculty position, and I knew that Dori [Pierson, Carter's wife] and Chris were both working at Disney, but I didn't know that Chris had pitched this idea for The X-Files.
So I started watching the show from the very first episode without knowing that the Chris Carter I knew was the Chris Carter who was the executive producer. I started watching the show because I was intrigued by the description in TV Guide. I was intrigued by this idea that number one, Fox was doing a serious drama—and a serious science-fiction drama, to boot—and secondly, the main character was a scientist and a woman. I thought, "They can't possibly do that right." I didn't have a lot of faith back then. Scientists were mad scientists and they were not portrayed in a favorable light in the media and, you know, it was rough being a scientist and getting young kids into science. So I just wanted to turn the TV on for five minutes and see what they were doing—and from the very first scene, I was absolutely hooked.
It wasn't until halfway through the first season that my mother called me. Apparently, Chris needed to talk to someone about science and my mother said, "Why don't you call Anne? She's a scientist." Later that evening Chris called me and I told him I loved the show and I'd been watching it from the beginning, and he was really thrilled to hear that because it obviously meant I knew enough about the show that it would be easy for me to help him—not only with the science but what the characters would do with the science.
He was asking me about how scientists would investigate a strange microorganism, what about a strange microorganism that would scream out "I'm alien!" As scientists, we don't look at strange organisms and think they're alien. He asked me a lot of questions about how scientists would react and what they'd say. One of the things I remember at the time was always feeling annoyed that microscopes were used wrong in all these TV shows. I said, "Finally, we're going to get the microscopes right!"
It was really nice that every suggestion I made, he used—and then he sent me the script and there were some problems. Not major problems, but Chris doesn't have a science background so there were minor things that were easy to just tweak a little bit and it ended up being that last episode ("The Erlenmeyer Flask") and he named one of the characters after me (Anne Carpenter). I was really excited about Anne Carpenter because at the time I saw her as maybe this recurring character. She'd be helping Mulder and Scully in their quest for the truth season after season. Of course when I get the script I realize that he's killed me off and my entire family, so that's the end of Anne Carpenter!
But it was just so much fun to help and to actually see the show with all these ideas in it. I don't think people who aren't scientists can understand what we think when we see science in television and movies and see it wrong. I'm helping Chris with his script today [for the miniseries] and it's such minor things that we're changing but it makes a huge difference. It's so easy to change and then all of a sudden it makes sense. Scientists just don't like seeing wrong science in TV and in film, so we appreciate it when they get it right and that's why I've been very happy to help Chris with his scripts.
You kind of alluded to this a little bit already, but many have cited "the Scully effect" and how her character really nudged people—especially women—into STEM fields in a big way. What do you think makes Scully a positive representation of a female scientist?
I was giving a lot of "Science of The X-Files" talks, and there was a high school student who came up to me after the talk and said, "You know, I wanted to become a scientist but I'm not a nerd. I'm not a geek. I'm not ugly. I'm not mad. And then I started watching The X-Files and I saw Scully—and she's beautiful, and she's smart, and she's believable, and she's a real person. And then I saw you give this talk, and you're funny and warm." She said, "I can be that! That's me, I can be that too."
Kids were given a real positive science role model [in Scully]. She was smart; she didn't know everything about everything, [but] she consulted with people. She was helpful, she was skeptical—but she was open-minded, especially as time went on. She wasn't closed off and she had a great relationship with Mulder, and I think people could see themselves. Smart people could say, "That could be me." And I love that. I asked my Intro Bio class back then how many of them were influenced by the character of Scully on The X-Files to go into science and half of the hands in the room went up. That's huge! That was saying that the show was really having an effect.
I used to get some hate mail about how I was promoting pseudoscience and conspiracies and I just tried to ignore all that because it's a science fiction show—it's not supposed to be real—but what the scientists do on the show, that I wanted to make real. They're trying to come up with explanations for some pretty strange things—that's what we do as scientists. We see things and we try to come up with explanations for how they work—and that's what Scully was trying to do.
I think yes, there was a Scully effect, and I'm really hoping that this miniseries will encourage a whole new generation of young people to think about science as a profession.
In reading your book it reminded me of a line in an early episode where the character Deep Throat talks about how a lie is best sandwiched between two truths. You want to put the real science in there and it might have something fictional mixed in, but that's what grounds it so well.
And it makes it scary—and after all, a lot of The X-Files episodes were pretty scary. This episode 6 that's in its final stages right now is, in my opinion, extremely scary. I'm coming up with the ideas for it and I'm scared reading the script!
We're grounding it in real science but we're also very careful that it can't be anything that could actually be done. We really do think about that. If I'm coming up with something extremely scary, I don't want to give anybody ideas. It's real enough—but then again, it requires the paranormal.
There are some aspects of the real science that are certainly dramatized for television, but how much of the science on the show was true to your experiences?
What's truthful is the way the scientists are reacting to what's going on. There are some pretty crazy things going on in the show; you've got decapitated heads of twins talking to their living twins. When they have scientists in the episodes—the experiments that they're doing, their confusion about what's going on—that's as real as we could make it in the scripts that I helped with. There's times when you can't make it real. There are experiments that take a couple days and Chris says they [only] have a couple hours.
One of the things that I always use as an example is the flukeman episode ("The Host"). You're never going to get a half-worm, half-man. It's not scientifically possible. But if Chris wants a flukeman, he's going to have a flukeman. So given that there will be a flukeman, how do we get him? That's the kind of thing I can really help with, coming up with something that sounds correct even though there's no chance of it ever happening.
You mentioned that you were a fan of the show even before you started advising on scripts and storylines. Are there any episodes in particular that are among your favorites?
I have a lot of favorites. Obviously "The Erlenmeyer Flask" was a big favorite.
Another favorite was the first episode of season five ("Redux") where we found these alien cells in the Arctic. Chris had asked me to come up with an alien organism that was a real organism on this Earth that no one would recognize. That's a tough thing—come up with something that almost no one is going to recognize that looks alien. I came up with this developmental stage in a sea urchin called the pluteus, and he used that on the show.
I know it might be hard for you to choose just one, but what's been your favorite part about working on the show?
What I really liked about working on the first set is that I actually came up with a monster. I was sitting in Chris' trailer and I was telling him about these fruit flies that had legs coming out of their heads or out of their mouths. He wrote an entire episode around it—and that is my favorite episode, the black-and-white episode ("The Post-Modern Prometheus").
"I used to get some hate mail about how I was promoting pseudoscience and conspiracies and I just tried to ignore all that because it's a science fiction show."
The funnest part about doing this is putting a little real science in this show and also being able to represent science and scientists to a lay audience by writing the book, by giving talks, by putting it in my class—and now by tweeting. I was tweeting from the set and [now] I have all these non-scientists following me. I tweet out interesting science and I'm finding that these kids are now retweeting the science, and that's really good.
You recently tweeted about being in Vancouver to advise on the revival premiering in January. Any hints or spoilers you can give us on the new season? (Simon has been given story credit on Episode 6, the finale of the miniseries.)
[Episode 6] connects with the earlier series really well. It's not like this is coming out of the blue. It's a way to wrap up a lot of the questions. Fans of the earlier seasons will really like it. There's a lot of science in it and the science is very scary. Driving home, I had this incredibly good idea—because Chris had asked me to come up with something, and in all modesty, I believe I've outdone myself. So I'm really excited, I can't wait to see the final script—and I can't wait to see the actual show.
I was there [in Vancouver] watching episode 4 being filmed—it's not a science episode, per se, but it may end up being people's favorite episode of all time. It was that good and it was that much fun.