Spielberg’s Lost Dystopian Future

In 1971, Steven Spielberg was still relatively unknown in the film industry and trying to make a name for himself. He had directed a couple half hour television episodes, but nothing of feature length. His talent was languishing until producers of the NBC TV show “The Name of the Game” hired him to direct a high concept, science fiction themed 90 minute episode. This would help launch Spielberg into greater recognition in the industry and show he had the chops for feature films.

“The Name of the Game” aired for three seasons on NBC from 1968-1971. It revolved around three characters who worked at a large magazine publishing company and would find themselves involved in various dramas each week. It was not a science fiction show, yet the producers decided to hire famed science fiction writer Philip Wylie to write a dystopian future script. Philip Wylie was a fairly influential science fiction writer, with his early novels being cited as inspirations for both the Flash Gordon and Superman characters.1 The episode Wylie wrote was titled, “LA 2017” and depicted one of the show’s main characters suddenly finding himself 46 years in the future in a nightmarish Los Angeles run by a fascist government with a police force of psychiatrists.2

NBC gave Spielberg a healthy $375,000 budget to work with and allowed him a fairly wide latitude to inject his own vision and style into the episode. It became a show case for Spielberg, and he basically created a feature length film within the restraints of television. NBC liked what he gave them and gave the episode a heavier than usual promotion. It aired on January 15, 1971 and got decent reviews, but apparently could not save “The Name of the Game” from being canceled a few months later. Yet, while it may have been on the tail end of “The Name of the Game” series’ run, it was the beginning of Spielberg’s assent into the upper echelons of film greatness. He has later said of the episode, “[t]hat show opened a lot of doors for me.” Shortly afterwards he directed the well regarded TV movie Duel, and a few years later directed Jaws. To use a cliche, the rest is history.

While this is an important step in Spielberg’s career, and film history in general, the episode has never been released to the general public since it aired. In fact, the entire “Name of the Game” series has never had a home video release, and lingers in television purgatory. Yet, living in this digital age, almost nothing is truly lost, and I was able to procure a copy of the episode through means I will leave undisclosed.

Watching the episode you definitely see hints of what Spielberg would become, and the directing is far better than the standard TV fare of the day. The editing is imaginative and he makes creative use of sound and visuals. While it definitely looks 70s, Spielberg works with what he has and adds some of his classic touches, including an appearance of lens flair. One interesting scene includes a hologram, reminiscent to what George Lucas employed a few years later in Star Wars.

There is a definite pro-environment and anti-corporation theme to the episode, as the United States has become a giant corporation that has destroyed the earth to the point everyone must live underground. Throughout most of the episode the main character explores this dystopic world, eventually realizing how terrible things have become and joining a rebel group. The episode ends on a fairly cliched twist, although I’m sure that is simply to keep the continuity of the series intact.

After watching the episode, I’m surprised it has never been given a proper release. Even if there is not much pent up demand for “The Name of the Game” series to be released, I would think a stand alone release of just this episode would make money for the studio. My dream would be for it to be fully restored and released on Blu-Ray. It’s a important part of Spielberg’s film canon and should see the light of day.

1. Wylie also has an interesting life story, including helping create the Atomic Energy Commission and being put under house arrest by the federal government during World War II for writing a novel that depicted uranium weapons before they were revealed to the public.

2. This is some ways reminds me of the Dollhouse episode Epitaph One, which similarly takes place in a post apocalyptic future, even though the rest of the series is set firmly in the present.