Wednesday, September 6, 1978 saw the premiere of Marvel’s third attempt at launching a live-action series, this time with the Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange.
Unfortunately, this turned out to be a case of bad timing, as CBS was in the beginnings of the company’s withdrawal from the Superhero Business. Wonder Woman lasted one more season, ending in September of 1979, and The Amazing Spider-Man, despite good ratings, shuffled its second season around sporadically through the year, spreading six episodes out over the course of six months and then airing the two-part finale as a special, five months later in July of 1979. The Incredible Hulk would be the only superhero series still on CBS at the end of 1979, running until 1982.
The only other attempt CBS would make at bringing a Marvel superhero to television would be the two Captain America films bookending 1979, but more on those in the next Marvel Movie F.O.O.M. column.
By pretty much everyone’s reasoning, Doctor Strange was an odd choice to star in a television movie/backdoor pilot. Even the writer/director, Philip DeGuere, noted in an October, 1978 interview with Starlog magazine, that it was “hard to even get a grasp on it.” Ultimately, the difficulty involved with not only presenting a visual effects-heavy, supernatural story, but with the expense of the shoot running “five days over schedule and probably 50-to-100,000 dollars over budget” contributed to Doctor Strange being a one-off appearance.
But it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Not only did CBS stick to the successful approach they took with The Incredible Hulk of handing the reins to a single creator, ensuring a singular vision from the writing through the direction, they also chose to bring in three actors already well-established with both film and TV audiences.
Sir John Mills was cast as Doctor Strange’s mentor, Lindmer (a play on Merlin, get it?), Jessica Walter was cast as the villain of the piece, Morgan Le Fay, and Clyde Kusatsu plays Strange’s assistant, Wong.
Mills was one of England’s most popular and beloved actors, whose career eventually stretched over eight decades, from 1932 to 2003. He was best known for starring turns in films as diverse as Scott of the Antarctic (1948), to Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson (1960), to King Rat (1965). My own personal favorite role of his was in the 1979 ITV miniseries, Quatermass, in the title role of the brilliant and haunted, Professor Bernard Quatermass.
Jessica Walter had been working consistently in film and television since the early sixties, with a breakthrough performance in Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty For Me (1971), as the psychotically obsessed fan of a radio disc-jockey. It was a film, and a role, that would be famously ripped-off in the nowhere-near-as-good Fatal Attraction, years later. Readers will probably recognize her most readily as the borderline evil matriarch of Arrested Development, Lucille Bluth.
Strange’s manservant, Wong, is played by Clyde Kusatsu, and while not a big name, he is one of the most recognizable members of the cast, working consistently to this day, with his latest credit being the 2009 Dollhouse episode, “Belonging,” as well as a recent run on The Young and the Restless. He’s also very active providing voice work for animated series from Batman Beyond to Heavy Gear, to Samurai Jack, to Avatar: The Last Airbender.
For the star of the film, DeGuere went the Amazing Spider-Man route and chose a young actor without a lot of experience to play Doctor Stephen Strange, Peter Hooten. I’ll be honest. The only thing he’s ever done, outside of Doctor Strange, that looks interesting to me is Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 wartime action film, Quel Maledetto Treno Blindato. You might know it better as Inglorious Bastards, the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s latest work.
The only cast-member with less experience was Anne-Marie Martin, who plays Clea Lake, but even she went on to a starring role in the popular 1988 cop-comedy television series Sledge Hammer! (1986-88).
All-in-all, this is a strong cast. At least as strong as the Incredible Hulk cast, and definitely a higher quality than The Amazing Spider-Man. DeGuerre took another inspiration from The Incredible Hulk and chose to emphasize the serious elements in the concept and de-emphasize the more flamboyant or pop aspects.
As you may have noticed from the character descriptions above, he opted to go with magical references more familiar to a mainstream viewing audience, with references to Arthurian legend rather than the Marvel pantheon of demons and deities. Strange’s character was changed as well, from the arrogant surgeon who loses the use of his hands, to a more laid-back psychologist and M.D. But don’t worry. He still rocks the mustache.
It was the Seventies, after all.
But on to the film itself.
It opens with a nice variation on what worked so well at the opening of Incredible Hulk, but rather than being a somber and quiet moment, it’s mystical and threatening. “There is a barrier that separates the known from the unknown. Beyond this lies a battleground, where forces of good and evil are in eternal conflict. The fate of mankind hangs in the balance and awaits the outcome.” This title fades and another appears: “In every age and time, some of us are called upon to join the battle…” Then Doctor Strange’s mystical symbol (four crossed lines inside a circle) appears the title, “Dr. Strange” appears across it.
All this happens while a disturbing, atonal music builds slowly in the background. It’s actually a little unnerving, so I give it points for that. In fact, the entire credits sequence is full of bizarre images, religious artwork, candles, and darkness, before taking us directly to a field of stars.
And with that, Doctor Strange leaps directly into a frightening, surreal scene of floating landscapes, shadow, smoke, and red lights as the Unnamed One commands Morgan Le Fay, in a hideous, creaking voice, to finally kill her old enemy now, 500 years since she failed in her first attempt. She is given three days to do it, and if she can’t kill him, then she’s to kill his successor.
The magical being Morgan is obeying isn’t named, and depending on one’s mood might look either cheesy or genuinely unnerving. It seems to be some sort of stop-motion monster with yellow glowing eyes, but the scene is so hazy we can’t get a good look at him, which is actually pretty effective. Others may mock it, but I like the otherworldliness that the stiff animation adds, as well as the only vaguely identifiable features. Given the effects budget for a television movie in 1978 that’s based on a comic book character, I think it’s pretty impressive. It’s not great, but it’s an impressive visual.
I have to say, though, that the score, once we get to New York, is a little odd. There are still undercurrents of atonality and ambient sounds, but there’s also barely restrained cheesy guitar noodling that comes and goes, over top.
Anyway, according to Lindmer, who knows Morgan’s coming, by the way (he’s not Sorcerer Supreme for nothing, after all), Morgan is the first of the Dark
Ones to cross over into our world. It seems like something awful is beginning, and they’ve only got three days to find Stephen Strange and begin “the initiation.”
This is a fine time to point out just how much DeGuerre is changing in order to make it more palatable to a Seventies audience. While Lindmer is wearing robes, the design is subtle and really doesn’t draw attention to itself. Wong arrives wearing a three-piece suit, and Strange is a slut who’s constantly late for work at Eastside Hospital because he’s busy bedding various young ladies. Why, the Head Nurse has already reported him for his behavior.
Heh, heh. Head Nurse.
In a fairly surprising move, within Strange’s first few moments of flirty dialogue with a nurse, we get an explicit declaration of why they aren’t going out anymore. He says it’s okay for doctor’s and nurses to fall in love. She says the problem wasn’t falling in love, but making love.
If that’s not to risque for a comic book movie, Doctor Strange’s first patient of the day is an older woman who’s ulcers are being aggravated by her alcoholism. You know, because she’s got the pains and has trouble sleeping. And when he sees how upset she’s getting when he refuses to prescribe her sleeping pills, he offers to let her stay the night in the hospital where he’ll slip her a little something to help her sleep.
This is about as far from the comic version of Doctor Strange as you can get. Instead of the arrogant bastard who’s life is ruined in an accident, this Strange is happy-go-lucky, horny, and doesn’t mind bending the rules for people with addiction problems. It’s not a deal-breaker when it comes to capturing the essence of the character, but it’s a bit of a stretch similar to the removal of all tragedy from Peter Parker’s life when he became Spider-Man. I don’t think DeGuerre trusted the audience to connect with a bastard who has a change of heart, and he was probably right.
Given the expense and the subject matter, I don’t think a Doctor Strange straight from the comics page would have clicked. Of course, this version didn’t either.
Probably the biggest change between the comic and the TV movie is the character of Clea. Rather than being the other-dimensional apprentice/love interest, she becomes an accidental pawn/love interest. In the first conflict between Lindmer and Morgan, Morgan possesses Clea and attacks the sorcerer physically. This intrusion into her mind is enough to completely disrupt Clea’s ordinary life and she begins being haunted by nightmares (of apparently running in a wind tunnel while Morgan watches??) before going mostly catatonic. This brings her straight into the path of Psychiatrist Supreme, Doctor Strange.
The next third of the film concentrates on Strange’s growing awareness that something is up, that climaxes with the revelation that Lindmer and Strange’s dead father shared an interest in sorcery and that Stephen had latent abilities. In fact, Strange’s parents’ untimely death in a car accident was most likely an attempt on Stephen’s life. Once all of this is revealed to him, Stephen decides to take a chance and listen to Lindmer, which leads to a jaunt into the Astral Realm.
Of course this means psychedelic light shows and the swirling body of Stephen Strange, followed by a confrontation between a spaced-out looking Strange and a “demon” on horseback named Balzaroth. It’s all very trippy and vague with heavy shadows and clothes flowing in the wind, but in the end, Clea is saved and we discover that Morgan is kind of horny for Doctor Strange.
Um. That doesn’t bode well for Clea.
Anyway, the last third of the film brings the threat home. Literally. Morgan gains entrance to Lindmer’s home, makes short work of Wong, and then confronts Lindmer in a light show that’s really very nicely done for the time. This is also the first time that we really get a look at the magical costume design of Doctor Strange artist extraordinaire, Frank Brunner.
As a side note, according to Steve Englehart’s website, this Doctor Strange film is based on his and Brunner’s first five issues of Doctor Strange (cover dated June through December 1974). I really don’t see it, but I’m willing to give Englehart the benefit of the doubt, as he wrote some of the best comics of the time period.
Back in the film, Morgan defeats Lindmer, shows off her cleavage, and summons a pretty scary old-school demon to take him away to hell (or somewhere). She then shows up to put a halt to Strange and Clea’s date, whisking him off to another dimension in an attempt to get in his pants. Who knew that Doctor Strange was all about getting some strange?
Ahem. Sorry about that.
She then magically dresses him in some pretty familiar robes and necklaces, but then creeps him out with her cold kisses. Seriously. But a second round of snogging leads to him getting all lusty eyed and Morgan leads him off to the shadows where it looks like they’re going to get it on. Or at least get into some heavy petting. All of this is taking place in psychedelic caves floating in a red sky.
Unfortunately, as she attempts to seduce him to her side, she shows him the beaten and broken body of Lindmer, which, surprisingly, doesn’t turn him on. Go figure. If it weren’t for his natural abilities, Morgan would do as she threatens and “take her pleasure from him another way.” I presume that would be a less kissy-kissy, rub her boobies kind of way.
Instead he zaps her with his magic light show, spirits Lindmer back to our world, and leaves Morgan to face the wrath of her evil overlord. And how do you punish a pretty lady? You make her old and ugly, of course. And thus, the good guys win.
The most amusing part of this victory, though, is that Lindmer set up Strange to take on the role of apprentice without his knowledge. He did it by trusting in Morgan’s lust for a good-looking man with a sexy mustache. And in Strange’s ability to refuse a good time.
I don’t know if I would have taken that bet.
Our grand finale is another quick light show as Strange agrees to be Lindmer’s successor and embraces the Guardianship of the Light, which comes with a fancy costume change as well as new-found magical powers.
All in all, this is a pretty solid, if uninspiring film. I’m really not surprised that it didn’t get picked up as a series, given that it was a little too mature for the Spider-Man fans, but not quite mature enough for fans of The Incredible Hulk. It is notable that this is the first of the Marvel Movies to actually feature a super villain as well as our hero, which I’m sure is another reason it ultimately failed. What made Spider-Man and Hulk affordable was keeping them both squarely in the real world, with the only effects budget going to prop doors and walls for Hulk to bust through and enough cable to let Spidey scurry up and down buildings.
Doctor Strange’s “high tech” lighting effects and the almost unavoidable need to have mystical villains and overall threats would have made this series pretty hard to sell to the viewing public. Especially when, according to some sources, just this opening salvo spurred complaints about demons and witchcraft being shown in prime time. They probably couldn’t have gone the Nightstalker route, either, with a monster of the week without losing more of the fundamentals of what made Doctor Strange a uni
But if there was a character that was ripe for a revisiting in film, I think Doctor Strange is the one. Given today’s effects and the ever-growing audience for magical action and adventure, I think this one would be a no-brainer. Of course, Marvel can’t seem to figure out a way to make a Doctor Strange comic work anymore, so we probably won’t be seeing anything done with the character for quite some time. And that’s just too damn bad.