As promised, I sat down with the two writers of last week’s episode of The X-Files, Kristen Cloke Morgan and Shannon Hamblin, to talk all about robots, vibrators, and Scully! Kristen, as you may know, guest starred in season 5’s “The Field Where I Died” and has many acting credits to her name. Shannon is new to The X-Files and “Rm9…” was her first real writing credit! It was a great episode, and certainly an explosive first outing for any writer.
This is a long interview, and with good reason – it may have been light on dialogue, but Rm9 was high in production value and I love chatting about all that nerdy art-department, set-design type stuff just as much as I love talking about Scully. And Scully and Mulder together. Holding hands. Ahem. Kristen and Shannon both had great things to say about working with the XF team, why Mulder and Scully have a unique relationship, and if they think the robots really are coming for us all.
How exciting is it to be the first women to write for The X-Files in 18 years? Only 6 other women have written XF over 218 episodes and two movies, so you are in an elite club.
Shannon Hamblin (SH): We’re just so happy to be part of it! My mom is the biggest sci-fi freak in the world. She’ll watch the worst of the worst sci-fi on TV, like Ice Twisters and other terrible things. So I grew up loving that stuff. The XF was so important to me and was just so fun. Just to be a part of that – this is my first real writing job. I was the writer’s assistant on Lore and the writing assistant in the room this year on the XF, and for my first real writing credit to be the XF was a great opportunity. It was great to be part of a show that has so much incredible talent coming out of it, women and men.
Shannon, you watched it growing up, and for Kristen, you were on it and it might have been more of a family business since Glen is executive producing and Darin is writing. Do either of you have any classic episodes that inspired Rm9?
SH: I don’t know if there were specific episodes that stood out –
Kristen Cloke Morgan (KCM): “The Field Where I Died,” right?
SH: Oh yeah, definitely. There was this great actress in it, but I can’t remember her name. (Both laugh.)
KCM: When Glen (Morgan, X-Files writer, director, and exec producer)and I started working together on Space Above and Beyond, I didn’t have a TV, on purpose. So I had never seen TXF. I had to watch it, and David Nutter made sure we all had some VHS tapes to watch, so I watched some very early episodes. I wasn’t against watching it! I had auditioned for Scully before it started, and I of course knew of its existence and knew it was a great pilot script. I’ve seen a bunch now. The best thing about this show, no matter who is writing it, men or women, the way it is set it provides for a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things. You have to give Chris Carter a lot of credit for trying a lot of weird, crazy, and bizarre things. Things that maybe other show runners would not. People might not know of someone like Darin Morgan if not for Chris.
I was very glad to see Glen Morgan has an executive producer credit these last two seasons. His episodes have always been among my favorites.
KCM: Glen does his part and Chris does his part and it is Chris’ show, which is the bottom line. But he still gives people a lot of opportunities to do a lot of great things. You wouldn’t get someone like Darin without Chris giving those kind of opportunities, for people to go to the ends of the earth, which is why there are so many great classic episodes.
SH: This show allows you to consider something that is a little crazy, a little silly, beyond the normal paranormal – like ghosts – each episode despite having a serialized aspect, delves right into the weird. Some of those early episodes were really odd and way out there, no other shows were doing what they were doing at the time.
Serialized storytelling was the norm in the 90s, and the XF really pioneered having story arcs with the mythology…that’s why I think XF did so well on Netflix, because it was a binge-watching style of show before binge watching existed.
KCM: I didn’t realize it found such life on Netflix (and now Hulu). That’s great.
Yes, and a whole new generation of women found Scully through it being on Netflix. Speaking of Netflix and technology, the technology is coming to get us in your episode – smart phones, smart houses, restaurants, and of course, we all bank online. I turned to my husband and said, we have to throw away the Alexa now! Do you both have smart aspects of your houses or offices that inspired this plot?
KCM: This episode came from talking about all these devices that we have, and things we’ve dealt with in real life, like Shannon’s TV talks and we all have apps that ding, so there’s a little bit that came from research and a little bit that came from it being a piece of our lives.
I think the scariest X-Files could really happen, and this could definitely happen! Where did the “robots versus Mulder and Scully” come from, and was it one of the scariest things you could think of in this new modern era of XF?
KCM: The episode started with a few ideas that Glen had, he wanted to do an episode that had drones in it. He wanted drones, and a fireball, and they don’t talk. So Shannon and I would get together and figure out how we could string these thoughts together and make an episode. Darin came by one day as well, and looked at our cards, and he said “I think the thing they order at sushi is called a blobfish!”
I didn’t think it was a real fish but it is! Gross!
KCM: There was just an article about blobfish in the Washington Post, too. Anyway, Shannon and I worked on the episode to make it very visually interesting and got it to a place where Glen was happy with directing it, too.
I really liked the shot where the robots were reflected in the doorknob, that was a cool, creepy vibe to it – they are coming! I like how this was different in the way some earlier XF episodes were different and new. Plus you showed them on a date – you rule! Thank you! Was the message overall just to put down the phones and be with each other?
SH: Wellllll, what do you think?
Yes! I think yes, especially with the holding hands at the end.
SH: I think we’ve all had this natural progression that makes sense where we’re all so engaged with our technology, but is it the best thing to be engaged with our technology so much? What are we missing out on by doing that? I think that is the build of the episode. You’re at dinner and you’re reading an article instead of talking to the person you’re with. We all do that, that’s simple. But then how does something like that start to become a danger?
I am in a weird place generationally, in terms of having had an analog childhood but a digital adulthood. Have you heard Miranda Lambert’s song “Automatic”? I thought of it a lot during this episode – she’s my age, and she sings about missing how things were before all the tech became a huge part of life.
SH: When I go to a concert and people are standing in front of my, videoing the concert, I’m just like…what is wrong with you? First of all, your video sucks. I can see it better on YouTube from a professional who is actually in the front row, filming. And are you ever going to watch that video?
KCM: That’s what I think, who is rewatching that? Like when I go to the Grove and people are filming the fountain. Why?
SH: They aren’t watching it, they are posting it to Instagram or Snapchat.
KCM: No one is watching it. Or liking it. Maybe your mom. (we all laugh.)
The next front in our modern lives is going to be a cyber front, with cyber warfare. And we’ve already lost the first battle with this election tampering, Russian interference, fake news, Facebook, etc. Do you feel that vibe informed you while you were writing this episode? Season 11 has definitely made some political statements.
KCM: I think that is what the teaser was about, certainly. There’s this sect online, Twitter especially, where these angry lonely people feel like its fun to blow stuff up – whether it is the election or the chatbot – to light it on fire. What happens is they are trying to sow anger and discord. Some of it is foreign, but some is right here in America. The internet is a global thing, we all participate. What it’s really about, beyond ‘put down your phones,’ is that when you read an article that you get on the internet, and the article is not from a reliable source – even though you might like what it says because it appeals to your views – your response is to go ahead and retweet it. You become part of that process. This is about being responsible. Be responsible that you’re taking care of your friends, intellect, country, and be responsible with what you’re sharing. For a lot of us, although some of it is bots, but most of the time there are people behind the desk and you have to realize that what you do and say has consequences. You can have an opinion, but be kind, be true, and be factual. If you stick to those things, you and technology will probably be all right.
Thank you for saying that, because as a geek woman I am often told that I’m not allowed to have an opinion on media. I get vitriol, I saw the anti-feminist statement on the teaser and I really identified with that.
KCM: One of the best things about Twitter last night while the show was airing was that it triggered some (Trump) bots that got really mad when “Bigly Credit” came on; all the bots came out and I felt really proud that I had ignited all the Trump bots. It was a feather in our cap!
One great thing that we collectively enjoyed last night was that, as you were writing Scully, you portrayed her as a woman with sexual needs – the vibrator! We’ve heard about Mulder’s porn collection for years, so it was great to see that. Why did you think it was important to include?
KCM: Shannon and I did research into all the things in your house that can basically spy on you, and your vibrator is one of them. Your vibrator can send messages – someone posted it today – and some can be controlled remotely by an app. I am glad that everybody appreciates that we want Scully to have a good time. However, it primarily grew out of how all the tech can talk to each other – the Roomba can talk to the vibrator, and to the Whipz car, and the smart house.
Her house exploded, does that mean she has to move back in with Mulder?
SH: It was a gas fireball, so maybe she’ll need some new carpet and a little reno. I don’t think the whole house is gone.
I found it odd that she’d live in a swanky smart house with remotely locking doors and the full works. It didn’t seem very Scully, to me.
SH: I don’t! She’s been abducted by aliens and by men, she’s on lockdown! She wants the extra security. She’s like, no more alien invasions, y’all!
And it gave you a chance for some nice Easter eggs, with the birthday security code and with Queequeg!
So I need to ask: are you shippers? Do you want them to be together in the end?
KCM: As someone who is writing on the show, I think you are trying to serve a script rather than a bigger idea about them being together or not. I appreciate that it is important to a lot of people, and I’ve already been on the bad side of that [with “The Field Where I Died”]. We talk about people being on the internet and being mean, so I’ve dealt with that. I don’t have a problem with shipping at all, I’m not against it. The great thing about those characters is that they can do and be all kinds of things. When you say they can only be one thing, that closes off a lot of other options.
I think they are together, I think that’s already happened. But if I was asked to write about it, I’d just keep it to what was established previously.
But what happens with them changes depending on who is writing them. For instance, Glen has written a lot of good moments for Scully – “This” has her doing more action and being badass, and “Home Again” had emotional, dramatic moments with her mom’s death, and “Never Again” had her questioning her place in life and with the X-Files and with Mulder. Not every writer does that, not every writer gives her that feminist agency. In Rm9, she smashes the glass, and she gets them out of the restaurant with the chopstick, and she has a vibrator to take charge of her sexual needs. Having seen the Scully Effect video that you just did, that Fox put out, are you aware of the fandom reaction to the way Scully is written, and how she is written with Mulder?
SH: They are two very independent people, and they also have a relationship together. I think they are a very modern couple in the way that they are together but sometimes they are not. They’re partners, they’re best friends, they’re sometimes lovers. They are just really incredible. Maybe marriage isn’t part of their life equation, we don’t actually know.
I like that modern, independent aspect of Scully, but that’s why I stressed that we see different aspects of them depending on who is writing. So much of it happens offscreen, which is very odd for TV and very different for writing about character development. The fact that Scully’s never been defined by her relationship with a man is a part of why she’s a groundbreaking female character. Her fertility has been hammered to death by some writers, like ‘because you’re a woman we’re going to focus on your fertility and why you had to give up your kid’. It was nice, in Rm9, to see her not dealing with that heavy mother burden, but seeing her go about her routine but also being her usual badass self and saving them from robots. Did you feel a responsibility to show her a certain way?
KCM: There was some of that, where we were the women writers on the show so we had a certain sense of that. We’ve said a few times in our interviews that we think Mulder and Scully are equal. They bring a different but equal value to their team. They’re a team. When we wrote for Scully, we wrote her as an equal. She offers to pay for dinner and he says no, I’ve got this. She breaks the window to get herself out. She’s not saved by Mulder. We tried to add those little touches in to really show that Mulder and Scully operate equally. For me, being a woman and being present anywhere, I don’t want a ring drawn around me. I just want to be equal. I want the opportunity to do what I do on an equal playing field. That’s the place we started from. We came a from a place of she’s smart, and he’s smart, and she’s a really independent person.
SH: I agree. Scully has always been written as a strong, intelligent female. We weren’t breaking the mold on who the writers, male and female, portrayed her as, hence The Scully Effect. She’s always been that character. We just wrote her as how she’s always been portrayed. Whether she had a baby or not was not relevant to this episode.
KCM: We were really grateful to have been given the opportunity, and that’s what anyone of any gender, race, ethnicity, would feel. When we showed up, we were not there to prove anybody wrong. So we rolled up our sleeves and tried to get the work done. Grateful to have a seat at the really strong, X-Files table.
They are equal – but there was also a bit of a dichotomy for a long time. She didn’t – and doesn’t – have a desk, the studio execs wanted Gillian to walk behind David and follow his lead. Gillian has discussed that, and I was pushing recently for her to have a desk or at least her name on the door.
SH: When you think about from the very beginning, the X-Files were Mulder’s baby and his dream project. In the beginning, she thought TXF was nonsense, she wasn’t super excited to be part of it. But then it became her life, and their relationship and teamwork grew, so it has been a process when you look back on it. She didn’t want to waste the plastic!
KCM: I have to say, for me, if someone put my name on the door and put a name plate on the desk I might be annoyed. I like to be the lady on the move, not tied to the office. I’d be like, “I’m Dana Scully! I’m a medical doctor! I’m not going to share a desk with Mulder! Keep your desk.”
Does this episode fit into the mythology at all? The theme that the government, or the Syndicate (CSM) is watching you, etc.
KCM: I think that while each episode can add to the mythology, for me I was happy that is wasn’t the task at hand for us. We were not charged with having to move the mythology forward.
What made you pick “Teach Your Children” – that song is going to be creepy forever now, thanks.
KCM: I had a different song in the script, and Glen suggested it and we really liked it. I thought it really fit. This is a good story I will tell about Shannon – so we’re on the set and Gillian didn’t know the song, or she didn’t think she knew it. So Shannon, who has been on a game show called ‘Don’t Forget the Lyrics’ and sung in front of many people, when the time came when Gillian didn’t know the song, Shannon led the whole crew in a rendition of “Teach Your Children.” It was great!
SH: I am not a great singer by any means but I just started singing it, and everyone joined in. It was really funny how everyone just started up and we were all singing.
I liked the ending and how it ended in the diner with the handholding in the morning, instead of their sterile sushi dinner. Was it a visual mirror, a busy human place versus a stark automated restaurant? Mirroring (the painting) Nighthawks?
KCM: That was a visual cue that Glen wanted to recreate, so it was a big puzzle for the crew. The director had a visual idea, we had to make it happen in the script, and the crew had to build the sushi restaurant. The incredible production team, led by the incredible Mark Freeborn, built that sushi restaurant. Freeborn had broken his foot and had been in the hospital just days before, but he had them build the whole thing from scratch. It was nothing, it was a rain damaged building in an old strip mall, and you wouldn’t believe what it looked like before. Plus the lighting team worked hard so Glen could film it like the Nighthawks shot.
Did you have any women who inspired you growing up?
SH: For me, my hero was always Gale Anne Hurd. I worked with Glen on “Lore” and she was one of the executive producers – she was THE female sci-fi producer. She did Terminator, Aliens, even before she did The Walking Dead, she was doing some really wild shit. I said I wanted to be her someday. Her career was great and I want to be a producer at that level.
KCM: I looked up to so many great actresses, I always loved Gena Rowlands and Jessica Lange. Ruth Gordon was a great actress but also a writer and producer who worked with the Marx brothers. I think as I’m getting older, I appreciate that you can do multiple things now. It was segregated more in the past, and I thought I had to give up one love – acting or writing – to do the other. But now, I don’t have to, because actors are more involved in production. After I had kids, I started writing more. I certainly appreciate any actor who really aren’t tied to one set idea of themselves. I love the idea that we are always evolving and changing, we can wear different hats, and we don’t have to be defined by one thing. Those are the people that I admire as I go forward.
SH: It was really fun and it’s a great show to be part of. The characters are so cool, the Scully Effect is real, the team was excellent.
KCM: If I were going to leave the fans with just one thing, it is that while David and Gillian are wonderful people, it is the people you don’t see, behind the scenes, and what they put into making this show that is incredible. Craig Wrobleski – the cinematographer, is fantastic. And there’s a strong woman no one talks about, Grace Gilroy. She is – you want to talk about a strong woman? – I challenge anybody to go against Grace Gilroy. There are so many talented people who make this show go. They are the unsung heroes of The X-Files. And every single one of them was so nice to Shannon and I when we rolled in. They listened to us and they included us. We sat around the table with all these really talented professionals and had great conversations.
SH: They were as excited about the episode as we were. And we’re episode 7, and they’ve been working late nights for weeks and months. People were so sick, dropping like flies from the flu.
KCM: And they still showed up every day with a smile and were excited. They treated us so warmly and with respect, and we were so grateful. This episode for sure, there is no dialogue so it is all production value. Glen was our silent partner, he really helped out and was a generous leader. It was a great experience!
Thank you so much to Kristen and Shannon for sitting down with me and talking about their work on this episode. You can easily tell, as an interviewer, when people are wildly enthused about a project and these two obviously loved every minute of making their episode. They certainly got to do my dream job – write for The X-Files! Go over to Kristen’s Twitter and tell her how cool she is, and you can tell Shannon right here in the comments, since she doesn’t have Twitter (for the best, probably, since all the technology is going to murder us).