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Meet the Woman Who Keeps 'The X-Files' Scientifically Sound

Anne Simon—the virologist who served as a science consultant on the original 'X-Files' and helped write the upcoming miniseries—talks the science that made you want to believe.

by Jonathan Peltz
29 October 2015, 7:00pm

Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. All other photos courtesy of the author

Anne Simon grew up the daughter of Hollywood sci-fi writer Mayo Simon, who wrote classic cult films like Futureworld and the Saul Bass acid-tripfest Phase IV. He also got to interview Apollo astronauts and meet with some of the smartest scientists of his day. It's fitting, then, that the younger Simon ended up not only becoming one of the smartest scientists of her day, but also serving as a consultant on a little TV program called the X-Files, helping showrunner Chris Carter maintain an undercurrent of science over which the show's forays into the bizarre and unexplained could run. (Well, most of the time. The infamous black oil, Simon admits, was pretty much made up.)

Simon came to work on the show through a friendship with Carter, who was dating a friend of her mother's around the time of the show's first season, and needed help keeping the show based in some sort of reality. "His brother had a faculty position at MIT, so he had the physics covered," she said. "But not the biology. That's where I came in." Simon—who at the time worked as a biochemist at the University of Massachusetts—was a natural fit.

Simon's currently the head of the Virology graduate program at the University of Maryland, and has a story credit on the upcoming X-Files revival, a six-episode miniseries being aired in January by Fox. She's also heavily involved with the rabid X-Files fanbase on Twitter, and will sometimes livetweet episodes, inserting commentary and behind-the-scenes factoids. As the show ramps up for its return, VICE chatted with Anne about how X-Files changed the public perception of science, how she helps the science dictate the direction of the show's storylines, and the fans who are obsessed with Mulder and Scully fucking.

VICE: What drew you to X-Files?
Anne Simon: Scully was really the first time a scientist on TV was being portrayed in a positive light. She didn't just believe. She wanted facts. She wanted to test her hypotheses and do experiments and not just blurt out things. There's the Scully Effect—you have all these fans saying that they became scientists because of X-Files.

How would you contribute to a script or an episode?
[Chris Carter] knew where he wanted to go with something. So for example, he asked me on the last episode on the first season: "How would you study a microorganism? What would be the first thing that you would do?" So I told him, "Well, you'd grow more of it." He'd say "How would you do that?" "Well it would take ten years..." Well you know television, so you'd already have it growing. What would you do next? Well, you'd put it under a microscope, sequence some of its ribosomal DNA... You wouldn't figure something you were studying was just an alien—you'd relate it to something. Back then, there were specific genes everybody would sequence and compare. So he goes, "What could they find that would instantly scream that it was alien?" So I came up with—and this continued until the revival—"Well how about an extra pair of nucleotides?" From there he'd send me the scripts and I would correct them. And he would use all my corrections. I did this for about five years before I told anyone about it.

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When you talk about ways to visualize science, do you think that's gotten better on TV and movies over time?
It's certainly improved in the movies. I haven't seen The Martian, but scientists are very happy about that. I think they take the time in the movies to get the science right. But on television it's very problematic. They don't have the time and they don't take the time. Chris takes the time. Which is why I always give my card to writers and tell them I'm available.

Can you think of an example where they didn't take your advice on something because they wanted a more powerful scene, or something like that?
The thing is it's all fantastical. I'm a fan of science fiction. This isn't supposed to be real. But we want what the scientists are doing to be real. The expression that I always use is that, "Aliens can do almost anything," So when you're trying to come up with something you just go, "Oh, the aliens are real smart, they can do this." There was an episode called "Redux," where Chris wanted Scully to figure out how she got infected by this alien virus. It was my idea to have a virus. So back then we had her do something state-of-the-art. Today it would be something else. It was called a "Southern blot." And I used to do lots of them... And he had her doing this on the show. Almost every single step. So he asked me, "How long would it take to do it?" And I said three days. And he said she has three hours... Well, let's say she needs a blazing hot probe, which is a radioactive piece of DNA. We didn't think we'd get that statement past the censors [laughs].

So you actually wrote for the new mini-series. How did that come about?
Well, I'm always trying to give Chris ideas. Now it's a lot easier because you can just email articles you find. I was telling him I thought a really cool monster would be these homeotic flies—what about something where they have legs coming out of its head or its mouth? So he said, "Great!"

The revival, I've done more on it than I've ever done. My best friend, Margaret Fearon, she's an infectious disease doctor up in Canada. She keeps diseases out of the blood supply up there. So she gives him all the medical advice. So she has a story credit also. Chris came up with an idea of what he wanted to do, and I did the best science of my career figuring it out. And he used all of it. It's probably the scariest science that's been on the X-Files. People are gonna be... let's just hope they have no sharp objects around.

Is it distracting to have people like me calling or, like, having your students constantly asking about the X-Files?
It's funny that this is happening again. When the X-Files was at the height of its popularity, David Letterman wanted me on, I did live TV in Canada, Good Morning America came by, and there was a full page in the New York Times. Then I was asked to write a book. And I think it was worth it. I got a lot of emails from kids who said they weren't interested in science and they couldn't put the book down and now they want to become scientists. I gave a TED talk. It's crazy. I gave a TED talk the same year as Ben Carson [laughs]. He talked about neurobiology. I still remember the talk. It was the best. And now look at him...

Do you think the public perception of science has changed since you started doing this?
I think it's getting worse. There's no question that it has gotten worse. As much as I don't want to be political about it, it does not help that an entire party's representatives are saying that these thousands of climate-change scientists are all lying. Once you have the perception that thousands of scientists are lying you think, Well, what else are they lying about? Then they say evolution. The foundation of biology. It's like saying there's no oxygen. We're not trying to deceive anyone. We're just trying to make hypotheses and test them. And this is our way of communicating that to society. We don't want to kill children with vaccines. We don't want to make people sick with food. We want to make things better for everyone. So maybe with people like me communicating it—with no connection to the food industry or anything—maybe they think I'm trying to help them.

In a way, the X-Files is almost trying to scare people straight with science.
I used to get hate mail from people saying I was helping to promote pseudo-science. But the X-Files is science fiction. The X-Files is not trying to make science look less real. If people believe in these conspiracy theories, I feel sorry for them. When they ask me, like, "Why were there aliens there?" What are you supposed to say?

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Is there any scientific basis behind the black oil?
No. When we were doing the black oil, I was thinking about slime molds. And I still want them to do something on that. They have different stages where they're individual and they all get together and form a big slug and then they form this big fruiting stock. It's a really cool organism. But no, that's one of those "aliens can do anything" things.

What really happened to Mulder's sister?
What you're going to see in the new series is what is actually going on. We are going to reveal what is going on. It was my idea. And [Chris Carter] went with it. You will know by the end of the sixth episode what all of this was all about—how everything fits in. How the cigarette smoking man fits in. What happened to Scully and her abduction. You will know how it all fits in. That's why I got so excited because I came up with something that fits.

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I'm sure people will be grateful.
I've been answering questions about Mulder and Scully's relationship because David [Duchovny] and Mitch [Pileggi] revealed that they're not together. And the 'shippers [the people obsessed with the Mulder/Scully love aspect of the show] went bananas. Mulder's no longer working for the FBI, and he's in a very bad position. He's in the depths, and the only thing he's got is conspiracies. In science, when you're looking at a lot of pieces of data and they're not fitting your hypothesis, it's very frustrating to come up with what's right. You know that what you thought was wrong. Mulder is not a happy person and not together with Scully at the beginning. Chris is trying to create tension in the Mulder/Scully relationship by giving them somewhere to go.

Do you feel like an X-Files insider?
I'm an insider and an outsider. I'm an insider to the show but an outsider to the fans. I know an awful lot, but I can't reveal stuff that's coming up.

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