“Welcome to the game, Sydney Bloom.” This quote from the pilot episode of VR.5 is probably the one takeaway most fans of the sci-fi series still have lodged in their brain 25 years later. Sydney, played by Lori Singer, is a Virtual Reality (VR) hobbyist who accidentally discovers that she can connect with other people’s subconscious and draw them into VR with her. She goes to the local university to consult an expert in the field, Dr. Frank Morgan (Will Patton), who tries to warn her away from pursuing her ability any further. However, it’s already too late, as Sydney has drawn the attention of a mysterious shadow organization known as “The Committee.” Morgan welcomes her to “the game” as The Committee enlists Sydney’s abilities for various assignments that she cannot refuse.
This is the premise of VR.5, a short-lived series that ran from March to May, 1995, in the dreaded Friday Night Death Slot preceding Fox’s new hit show The X-Files (then in its second year). It was a mid-season replacement for M.A.N.T.I.S., which itself had replaced The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (paired up against The X-Files’ first season). Even at the time, Entertainment Weekly was already calling this “the Bermuda Triangle of time slots.”
The show had some serious heavy hitters in the cast, including a pre-Buffy Anthony Head, Academy Award winner Louise Fletcher, and David McCallum of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. fame. Penn Jillette (the speaking half of the duo Penn & Teller) even guest stars as Sydney’s obnoxious neighbor. Show runner John Sacret Young was co-creator and writer for the critically acclaimed China Beach, where he had received five Emmy and three Writers Guild nominations.
However, it’s Lori Singer who really carries the show, being the lead character and the primary focus of just about every episode. Prior to VR.5, Singer was best known as the female lead opposite Kevin Bacon in the 1984 movie Footloose. She also had prior television experience as part of the ensemble cast of Fame the series. Singer is perfect as the introverted hermit Sydney, working a solitary day job as a telephone lineswoman and using that access to stay up all night as a voyeur of phone conversations across the city. She’s withdrawn from the world following a mysterious childhood incident that resulted in the death of her father and twin sister in a car accident, and left her mother in a vegetative state following a presumed suicide attempt.
Her only confidant is her next door neighbor and childhood friend, Duncan, played by Michael Easton. Both Singer (in 1995) and Easton (in 1992) were named to People magazine’s “The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World” issue, though here they’re dressed in consummate ‘90s-era, androgynous grunge. In the world of VR however, “CyberSyd” gets to shed the shell—to be anything and anyone—often surprising herself in the process. She plays a gender-bending Roaring ‘20s gangster, an Air Force test pilot, a spy thriller Bond girl, and a cyber noir fem fatale. The premise of delving into people’s psyches gives the show an infinite pallet of genres and settings to place Sydney, and they have a lot of fun with it.
During her VR sessions with a Committee-selected target, Sydney’s own subconscious would add elements to the environment, allowing her to also explore her own past and peal the onion back a little further each episode. In this manner, even the show’s “freak-of-the-week” type episodes became “mythology” episodes. Which makes it all the more infuriating that Fox skipped airing three of 13 episodes, leaving fans missing important pieces to the puzzle.
Even with the intriguing flexibility allowed by the show’s premise, it could have easily slid into formulaic monotony. The show avoided this with some bold choices throughout the series (skip ahead to the next section if you don’t want to be spoiled). At the end of Episode 4, Dr. Morgan is assassinated right in front of Sydney, to be replaced by Oliver Samson (Anthony Head) as her Committee handler in the next episode. While this has become something we’ve grown accustom to in today’s prestige television environment, it’s the first time I can recall a series killing off a regular cast member without so much as a hint like that.
Another episode puts Sydney on the back burner as Duncan has to stumble his way through VR.5 to save her from imprisonment in a psychiatric hospital. That episode incorporates a lot of fun nods to other TV shows and movies, like The Avengers, James Bond, The Maltese Falcon, and Sherlock Holmes. The penultimate episode also features Duncan, having him wake up in a parallel reality where Sydney was one who died in the car crash and her sister Samantha survived.
As you dig into the history of VR.5, reading articles and reviews, two shows are constantly referenced by way of comparison: The Prisoner and Twin Peaks. I might be more inclined to credit movies such as Brainstorm and Dreamscape, but I understand the sentiment. This was a show that required and rewarded attentive watching. Unlike those other two series, VR.5’s central mysteries had actual answers and those answers were revealed in bits and pieces throughout the season. The season finale in particular takes several unexpected twists and turns, wrapping up the mysteries from the first season and opening up a door that exposed whole new levels for a subsequent season to explore.
The show was not lacking in critical praise. In a review of the premiere, the Los Angeles Times called the show “the most fascinating, most intriguing, most scintillating, most challenging, most kick-ass new series of the season.” Variety called it “quite watchable” and compared its potential to develop a cult following to previous shows like The Prisoner, Max Headroom, and Twin Peaks (see what I mean?). The Daily News called it “intelligent, exciting, innovative television” while acknowledging that it may have been asking too much of its viewers to follow the continuing storyline week-to-week.
On top of making the regular viewer think too much, the show also had some issues behind the scenes. The writers were often writing the scripts only days ahead of filming. Even though the actors consistently praise the writing as one of the draws of the project, a common complaint is that they didn’t understand the story until they viewed the episode along with the rest of the audience. A Los Angeles Times article claims that the entire back story about Sydney’s father and twin sister being killed in a car crash wasn’t added until the first four episodes were already in the can, with additional scenes filmed and spliced in after the fact.
Filming often overran schedule, taking eight to ten days to film an episode. Post-production could stretch that out to 4 weeks, as the VR sequences were filmed in black-and-white and manually colorized to produce the desired other-worldly effect. The cost of that process made each episode expensive to produce as well—rumored at up to $1.5 million per episode.
Ultimately ratings killed the show, though under-promotion by an unenthusiastic Fox is generally blamed for those numbers by the fans. The ratings were looking good for the first two episodes, hitting second place in its timeslot. But after that, the numbers dropped precipitously and it rode out the rest of the season (what Fox aired of it) dead last. Looking back now, this is somewhat ironic as the first two episodes are probably the weakest, likely due to their write-as-you-go mentality.
VR.5 came about just as the internet was beginning have an impact on television viewing (becoming the new “virtual” water cooler). The alt.tv.vr5 newsgroup hit a peak of 120 messages per day in July 1995, and the group maintained a Survival Guide and a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) for the show that are still available today. With the show’s obvious appeal to developing online culture, the actors were also doing AMA-style interviews on CompuServe (now there’s a throwback).
Following the cancellation announcement, an internet-driven consortium of fans calling themselves Virtual Storm lobbied hard for Fox to reverse its decision. They very nearly got a made-for-TV movie, but Fox pulled out of the deal at the last minute. The group did finally achieve some success, convincing the Sci-Fi Channel to air the series in its entirety (all 13 episodes) in 1997.
Criminally, VR.5 only received a VHS release in 2000. The series has never been released on DVD, and it is not currently available on any streaming platform. A few avid fans have uploaded the entire series to YouTube, and the Internet Archive also has the first four episodes available.
If it’s not obvious, I’m a huge fan of this show (I listed it in my bio below, written four years ago). I’ve rewatched several times over the years, including just recently to commemorate the 25th anniversary. The incredible soundtrack by John Frizzel is part of my regular rotation. In particular, the hauntingly beautiful “To Dance Again” is one of my top ten favorite songs ever. Seriously. I could go on and on about the merits of the series.
Although the show ends on a cliffhanger that will never be resolved, it’s still well worth checking out. The 13-episode limitation forced the writers to accomplish the kind of tight world building and information-dense episodes that we’ve come to expect in the current age of bingeable 8-to-10-episode seasons. The technology in the show is obviously dated (heck, it was dated at the time, with Sydney using a 1980’s era acoustic modem), but in so many ways, the show was ahead of its time. It is, as I say, an overlooked sci-fi classic.