Long before Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. put Steven Spielberg on the map as one of the greatest science fiction visionaries of all time, he was a hungry young director aiming to elevate the look of early 1970s television. Back then, Spielberg was dipping his toes into the cold, electric waters of sci-fi storytelling with such efforts as an all-but-forgotten TV episode titled “L.A. 2017,” a weird, dystopian vision of what is now present day. In this then-futuristic imagining of Los Angeles, milk is only for the rich and jokes are nothing more than strings of digits.
In the early 1970s, before Spielberg had broken into the world of major motion pictures, he was taking work as a television director. His first gig for the small screen was an episode of the Twilight Zone follow-up, Night Gallery, and during this period, he also directed episodes of Columbo, Marcus Welby, M.D., and his first feature-length effort, the automotive thriller Duel. But in January of 1971, less than a year before Duel (originally a TV movie that was later released in theaters) hit the airwaves and established him as a serious filmmaker, Spielberg directed an episode of the show The Name of the Game titled “L.A. 2017.”
The Name of the Game was a bit of an odd duck, and “L.A. 2017” was an even stranger installment. “The Name of the Game was unusual, being an omnibus that featured three different leading men,” says Barry Monush, a curator with the Paley Center for Media in New York and author of the forthcoming Steven Spielberg FAQ. The show was a “wheel series,” where each episode focused on one of the three leads, Tony Franciosa, Gene Barry, or Robert Stack (better known today as the former host of Unsolved Mysteries), all of whom played characters who worked for a fictional magazine outfit, Howard Publications.
Most of the episodes during The Name of the Game’s three-season run were relatively grounded tales of crime, drama, or suspense, but every so often they would produce a more experimental genre installment featuring Barry’s character, Glenn Howard. An “elegant corporate aristocrat” and owner of Howard Publications, Howard featured in an episode set in the Old West (a flashback to one of Howard’s ancestors), one where he got amnesia, and one where he has to investigate a coven of witches (featuring guest star William Shatner!). And in the show’s final season, there was “L.A. 2017.”
As the title implies, the episode, written by the sci-fi author Philip Wylie, contrives to send Howard 46 years into the future, where he witnesses a world (well, an L.A.) ravaged by ecological disaster. “This episode falls under the category of ‘message’ science fiction, which was very much in vogue at the time,” says Monush. “‘L.A. 2017’ was a statement about the prevalence and danger of pollution, and how a callous disregard for our environment could put the human race in a precarious position of having to rethink our way of living.” And like any number of environmentally minded pieces of sci-fi, “L.A. 2017” was far from subtle in its message.
The 76-minute episode starts as Howard is driving along, dictating a letter to the president about the dangers facing the environment. With little warning, Howard falls asleep at the wheel, and when he wakes up, he finds himself in the year 2017, where the world has become a hazy, blasted wasteland. For reasons that become obvious by the episode’s end, the mechanics of Howard’s time travel are of little concern.
Howard is soon scooped up by gas-masked paramedics and transported underground, where most of the population is now forced to live. From here, the episode takes Howard on a grim tour through a thoroughly ‘70s vision of the horrors of 2017. As he moves through the world of the future, meeting the president, being acclimated to high society, becoming disillusioned with future society, and joining a revolution, the episode visits a number of science fiction tropes that are at once cliché and bizarre. Jokes are passed along as strings of numbers. A retirement home for “discards” is populated with old hippies who are still playing in a grimly ironic flower-power band. Howard discovers that a mass die-off of algae in the Indian Ocean poisoned the surface air, forcing much of humanity underground, to be ruled by corporate overlords. Because the pollution killed off most animals, L.A. only has one cow, and milk is treated with the reverence of a century-old scotch. There are also dystopian greatest hits such as thuggish government stormtroopers, a eugenics-inspired breeding program, and an oppressive system of constant surveillance.
While the episode had a huge budget for the time at $375,000, it retains the cheap-looking high-dialogue/low-effects ratio of much televised science fiction of the day. Still, Spielberg was able to add some visual flare that sets a number of scenes apart. “One of the most successful accomplishments of the episode is the sense of disorder and dread that Spielberg creates from the opening sequence: a desolate landscape, deliberately discolored photography, and the sense of disorientation that the main character feels,” says Monush.
What may be the episode’s best sequence sees Howard come upon an old acquaintance from 1971, who is now held in an asylum and brutally interrogated for his scientific knowledge. Held in a straightjacket at the bottom of a futuristic operating theater, with shadowy figures looming above him, the sequence looks like something out of 1984 by way of Terry Gilliam (whose science fiction works wouldn’t appear until years later). “Shooting [him] from a low angle, with the voices of his inquisitors heard echoing above him, the scene is unsettling and emotionally effective. Spielberg really makes us feel his plight,” says Monush. “Clearly, someone at Universal Television realized that the unusual nature of this episode required a special touch and entrusted Spielberg with it.”
In the end, (SPOILER ALERT!) Howard wakes in his car, the L.A. of 2017 having been nothing but a bad dream. Once again, all is right with the world… for the moment.
The Name of the Game would air its final episode just months after the premiere of “L.A. 2017,” and Spielberg would be on his way to becoming one of the biggest names in filmmaking by the end of the decade, the episode itself fading quickly into obscurity. Monush says that because of the length of the episodes, and a general ambivalence toward The Name of the Game after it ended, the program was only ever briefly picked up for syndication. “Therefore this episode kind of dropped off the face of the Earth, along with the rest of the series.”
Today, “L.A. 2017” remains a barely remembered bit of sci-fi history, and a fascinating window into the early influence of one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed directors. Beyond its first season, The Name of the Game was never released on DVD, so the episode is extremely hard to come by, and virtually unavailable on the internet beyond individual clips. But it has been preserved by the Paley Center Archives, who will be hosting a screening of “L.A. 2017” along with some of Spielberg’s other early TV work, on October 1, 2017. If you can’t make it to one of the screenings, the episode is always available to view in person at the Paley Center Archives in New York or L.A., in 2017 and beyond. Bring your own milk.
Correction: Previously we stated that The Name of the Game never went to syndication, which has been changed to reflect that it actually did, for a brief period.