March 10, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Forget about alien abductions and demonic possessions. Programming executives over at the Fox network are contemplating a much tougher unsolved mystery — what to do with that Bermuda Triangle of time slots, the hour before The X-Files.

Fox’s latest offering to the Friday night dead zone between 8 and 9 p.m. is a neo-psychedelic cyberspace drama called VR.5 (its March 10 debut bumps M.A.N.T.I.S., one of the lowest-rated shows of the year, which replaced The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., one of the lowest-rated shows of last season). Custom crafted to appeal to the same creep-show contingent that made Mulder and Scully cult heroes, VR.5 is packed with everything an X-Phile could possibly want, from conspiracy-laden plot twists to eerily enigmatic characters to an atmosphere so moody it makes Twin Peaks look like Mayberry.

”It’s cyber noir,” offers executive producer John Sacret Young (China Beach). ”It’s a mind bender. It’s about consciousness and subconsciousness. It’s like a dream. You wake up from some scenes and wonder, ‘What the heck was that?”’

Here’s the series’ twisty premise: Lori Singer (Short Cuts) stars as Sydney Bloom, a gorgeous but troubled telephone linewoman who builds a ”home brew” computer system from leftovers picked up at work. While surfing the Net one night, she accidentally hacks into a powerful new form of virtual reality that lets her access the subconscious minds of whomever she dials up on her modem line. Enter ”The Committee,” a quasi-governmental agency with designs on Sydney’s discovery. There’s also a flashback-heavy subplot about Sydney’s dad, a brilliant computer scientist (played by The Man From U.N.C.L.E.‘s David McCallum), and her twin sister (Tracey Needham), both of whom may have died in a car crash years earlier.

Confused? You’re supposed to be. ”Half the time even the actors don’t know what’s going on,” cracks Michael Easton (Days of Our Lives), who plays Duncan, Sydney’s slacker pal and upstairs neighbor. ”We just nod a lot and do what they tell us.”

That touch of edgy uncertainty is what gives VR.5 its trippy, Peaks-anese feel — like Alice in Wonderland as written by William Gibson and directed by Oliver Stone. It also lets the show get away with the sort of avant-weird lens work usually found in underground art flicks. Its way-cool virtual reality sequences, for instance, are created by converting 35 mm color film to black and white, then recoloring it frame by frame, washing the actors in a funky Tron-esque glow. Not an effect you’re likely to see on, say, Party of Five.

Still, challenging television cyberdramas with difficult plotlines aren’t exactly guaranteed ratings grabbers. If you want to see the creators of VR.5 squirm, whisper the words Wild Palms. ”Ugh,” says Young of the disastrous 1993 cyberspace miniseries, so dazzlingly complex ABC had to set up a 900 number offering tips to help viewers untangle the plot. ”That was unwatchable. It had no emotional content. It was all wacky and surreal, but in a very elbow-nudging kind of way. Our show is going to be a lot more emotionally accessible.”

VR.5 may have one other thing going for it: Cybermania has been sweeping the nation in the last few years, with trendy coffee shops serving up Internet connections and E-mail addresses popping up everywhere from the White House to your local pizzeria. ”I think people are becoming so isolated that they’re turning to their computers for intimacy,” theorizes Singer. ”People go on-line and meet other people and play all sorts of games. I heard about a couple who met on-line and got married. It sounds strange, but people are using computers to build a new type of community.”

What type of community will people build on VR.5‘s seemingly jinxed pre-X-Files time slot? The answer will come when the series begins airing its 13 episodes. ”If you’re flipping through the channels looking for old Silver Spoons reruns and you come across our show, you’ll probably want a refund on your cable bill,” says Easton. ”On the other hand, if you’re bored with the same TV crap every week, you’ll want to watch.”

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