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Medicalpost.com: Doctoring the X-Files

Doctoring the X-Files
Margaret Fearon

From examining the morgue to “Lock it up,” a Canadian doctor gets a chance to help make sure the science of the X-Files is as believable as can be

“Lock it up!” echoes around the cavernous sound stage, the call taken up by crew members to alert everyone in proximity that filming is about to begin. Within seconds, the buzz of voices and the bustle of a busy film studio miraculously stop. You truly can hear a pin drop.

“Sound rolling”-quickly followed by the director’s “And . . . action!”-begins the first of what will be numerous takes, using different camera angles. What will end up as a two-minute segment of an hour long (about 45 minutes, actually, excluding commercials) television episode of the X-Files will take from one to two hours to set up and shoot. And that doesn’t take into account the hours of research, scriptwriting, acquiring props, set-building and special effects preparations that go into every story. I am sitting in a recreated Brady’s kitchen (yes, from the Brady Bunch!), feeling like I’m in a time warp. I’m sure my best friend’s kitchen had a table just like that, and didn’t our next door neighbours have that ugly orange lamp I can see in the living room? The wizards of the X-Files crew have perfectly recreated the Brady Bunch living room and kitchen right here in the airplane hangar-size home of the X-Files at Fox studios in downtown Los Angeles. They tried to get the set used for the Brady Bunch movie, but it was not available so they had to do it themselves. They have done an amazing job, down to the large Chinese horse on the credenza. They are shooting what will be the second-to-last episode of both the season and the series, and in true X-Files fashion, it is the Brady Bunch meets the FBI. But I won’t give away any more details-you’ll have to watch for yourself.

So what is a Canadian doctor who works as a medical microbiologist in an Ontario public health laboratory doing on the set of the X-Files? Well, aside from the fact I have been an X-Files fan for years, and I am having a great time watching how much work goes into making those weekly episodes, I am also “working.” Vince Gilligan, the soft-spoken, charming writer/director of this particular episode has been quizzing me on the autopsy they plan to shoot later in the day, and has asked me to check out Scully’s morgue to make sure everything is set up properly. Compared to testing hundreds of powders and packages for anthrax, dressed in full respiratory protection in a containment lab, this doesn’t qualify as work, as far as I am concerned.

My closer connection with the X-Files came through a friendship with the scientific consultant for the series since it began in 1993. Dr. Anne Simon (PhD) is a plant virologist at the University of Maryland, who several years ago wrote a fascinating book titled the Real Science Behind the X-Files. If you think some of those X-Files episodes are far-fetched, think again. Most have a solid basis in scientific fact taken a step further. I have always been impressed with the effort made to get things right, and, knowing Dr. Simon, I can see why they are so successful.

Recently, I had the opportunity to contribute in a small way to some of that science and it has been great fun. Chris Carter, the show’s creator and executive producer, invited Dr. Simon and me to spend a day on the set during a recent visit to L.A., where we had the opportunity to meet cast and crew, watch them shooting the day’s scenes and snoop around some of the permanent sets that make up the familiar back-drop to the characters and stories of the X-Files.

When I examined the morgue, I found a room I would be happy to do an autopsy in (if I were still doing pathology, that is). All the equipment, including two stainless steel tables, nice Leica microscopes (including a teaching scope I would love to have) and cabinets full of glassware, vacutainers, specimen bottles and instruments are authentic and appropriate. Well, OK, maybe you wouldn’t have virus tissue culture flasks sitting in your morgue cupboard, but they look very scientific. I actually didn’t have to do much other than fix the X-rays (backward, of course!) on the viewing box and put a stopper in an Erlenmeyer flask containing a culture medium, which looked like it might be actually growing something extraterrestrial-sort of like the stuff I find in my refrigerator when I forget those leftovers from Sunday dinner. (Note to director: Have someone wash the glassware occasionally!)

I examined the instrument tray to make sure everything needed for an autopsy is there-and it is, but after nine years of autopsies, the X-Files crew probably knows what is needed as well as any pathologist.

I also check out “the dead guy.” In a huge trailer just outside the X-Files sound stage, the makeup artists are in the process of preparing the dead body for Scully’s autopsy later that night. The dead guy is a very much alive young actor who is patiently having a stitched up Y incision applied to his chest while another girl paints on the appropriate mottling and discoloration typically seen on a corpse that’s been dead for – well, let’s just say a while.

The makeup team for the X-Files has received several Emmy awards for their work, and I can see why. Again, the attention to detail and the desire to make everything look as authentic as possible impresses me. I tell the corpse he makes a great dead guy. He’s not sure if he should thank me or not, but the makeup ladies are pleased someone with first-hand experience with dead bodies admires their work.

Many X-Files episodes are filmed at night. The shooting schedule is such that, to meet demanding episodic TV deadlines, they often work well into the early hours of the morning – a gruelling 14-hour day for cast and crew alike. When we left Fox at 1:30 a.m., there was still another scene to film for the day.

Gillian Anderson, who as Dr. Dana Scully frequently has to spout reams of medical and scientific jargon, most of which she doesn’t understand, was having difficulty with some lines, mainly due to exhaustion. For the first time I appreciated how hard it must be for a lay person to portray a physician. Words that trip effortlessly off our tongues from years of familiarity are like a foreign language to most people.

Add to that actions that go along with the dialogue, emotional responses to situations and having to repeat it exactly the same way over and over for different camera angles and you have some idea of what it’s like for an actor.

Glamorous? Not really. It’s hard work and often mind-numbingly boring as actors go through a scene for the 20th time.

So would I trade my always challenging, interesting, never boring job as a public health medical microbiologist for a TV career? Make me an offer. These days, boring would be a welcome relief!

Margaret Fearon is microbiologist in the laboratories branch of the Ontario Ministry of Health in Toronto.

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