`Probe' blends science fiction and detective story. New series stars Parker Stevenson as the offbeat sleuth

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Probe ABC, Monday, 9-11 p.m. Stars: Parker Stevenson and Ashley Crow. Writer: Michael Wagner. Director: Sandor Stern. Executive producers: Alan J. Levi and Michael Wagner. The concept: Austin James is a super genius whose company, Serendip, is the world's most advanced science service center, solving scientific problems on assignment.

The gimmick: Austin James (played by ex-``Hardy Boys'' star Parker Stevenson) is an oddball, offbeat, charmingly rude character who hates his own organization and works on his own. He reluctantly accepts Mickey Castle (Ashley Crow) as his secretary. She is dumb but unknowingly helpful in her naivet'e.

Production trick: James functions in an old warehouse, lovingly called the Bat Cave. He sleeps in an old tool cabinet in the midst of a lot of old furniture. All of this saves a lot of production money that would otherwise have to be spent on expensive sets.

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``Probe'' is a cheeky try at combining science fiction with detective drama. Why not?

It was created by science-fiction author Isaac Asimov and ``Hill Street Blues'' story editor Michael Wagner.

This premi`ere episode is a two-hour special designed to lure viewers into the series, which starts its regular run on Thursday at 8 p.m. (not available for screening at press time).

What can I tell you? It's crotchety James showing his dimples as he solves ridiculous crimes; playing delightful games with a gullible secretary/girlfriend. You are supposed to be dazzled by the whims and whimsy of the characters and situations. Occasionally you may be:

Item: When the secretary's notebook is full, he tells her to write smaller.

Item: James finds most of his clues by analyzing the strata of dust in a vacuum cleaner bag.

Item: The secretary appears throughout with her arm in a cast - a condition acquired in a women's arm-wrestling competition. When the coroner requests James's presence, he says: ``Bring your secretary, I want to write something sexist on her cast.''

Item: The enemy turns out to be a once-philanthropic computer called ``Crossover,'' which has become psychotic.

``Probe'' is most successful in its dazzling manipulation of audiences. If you don't watch out, you are likely to believe the sleight-of-hand that tries to make you believe you are seeing a high-tech show when what you are actually seeing is a low-budget simulation. It's high-tech gone awry ... and I do mean wry.

``Probe'' is a good-natured, old-fashioned whodunit masquerading as innovative science fiction. If you don't expect Asimov-type brilliance and are willing to settle for a couple of hours of irrational fun and games, tune in.

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