Dr. Strange (1978)


With an official Marvel Cinematic Universe iteration of Doctor Strange in the works, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role and due to hit movie screens in 2016, I thought it was time to set the Wayback Machine to the 1970s and fall under the spell of the original Dr. Strange movie.

As ever, this 1978 TV movie needs to be considered on its own merits, taking into account the budgetary and technological restrictions of its time.

The Ditko-verse
Five hundred-year-old sorceress Morgan LeFey (Jessica Walter) is tasked by her nameless, demonic master (a giant, mist-enshrouded puppet, voiced by David Hooks) to slay Earth's current sorcerer supreme, Thomas Lindmer (John Mills... yes, THE John Mills) within an arbitrary timeframe of three days. I suspect he's supposed to be Dormammu.

The legendary Arthurian villianness has been hanging around the "higher levels of the Astral plane", a set clearly influenced by the iconic artwork of Dr. Strange comic book artist Steve Ditko. This opening sequence gave me hope that the film would be treating its source material with some respect.

Morgan's scheme involves mind-controlling beautiful student Clea Lake (Eddie Benton aka Anne-Marie Martin) to push Lindmer off a bridge.

Lindmer survives, but Clea is traumatised by the event and ends up in hospital under the care of psychiatrist Doctor Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten), who wears his father's ring that bears the same symbol as seen on Lindmer's window and on a painting in his Sanctum Sanctorum.

Strange finds himself drawn to Clea and Lindmer offers to help out in her treatment, convincing Strange to come to his home where he sends the doctor off on an astral voyage to save Clea's soul.

Astral Tripping
This 2001-style, kaleidoscopic light-show - complete with a phantom horseman in the form of the demon Balzaroth (voiced by The Addams Family's Ted Cassidy) - is the visual highlight of the film, being surprisingly imaginative and trippy despite the limitations of '70s TV special effects.

After this, Strange declares he doesn't want anything more to do with Lindmer's magic, but Morgan isn't listening and after bitch-slapping Lindmer's chum Wong (Clyde Kusatsu) and then seemingly doing the same to the old man, she turns her attention to Stephen Strange.

It turns out that Morgan has a bit of a cougar-thing going and wants to use her womanly wiles (which apparently haven't seen much action during her centuries in The Dark Dimension) to seduce the good doctor. He, of course, is having none of this - as his eyes are focussed on Clea.

Dr. Strange is quite a dialogue-heavy piece, but still manages to break this up with some flashy light shows and demonic summonings, so that even in the many hospital scenes the pace never sags too badly.

However, things go bizarrely off the rails in the film's denouement - presumably these were meant as plot hooks if this pilot spawned a TV show - when Clea and Strange repeat (almost verbatim) a conversation they had earlier in the film, but neither notice, and then neither seem that perturbed by Morgan popping up on TV as a self-help guru!

There are a lot of changes from the source material in Dr. Strange, most of which I can understand for the sake of brevity, such as stripping out Strange's adventures in Tibet and making him a psychiatrist rather than a surgeon to tie him in to Clea's sub-plot.

What were they thinking?
It's a bit of a shame that in removing the Eastern aspects of Strange's backstory (thus explaining why Lindmer becomes Strange's mentor, rather than The Ancient One - who, confusingly, makes a vocal appearance during Strange's transformation sequence) they also decided to Westernise Wong and change Clea to a normal human being.

But I guess they didn't want to overload a mainstream audience with too much extraneous weirdness in a 90-minute television show about dimension-hopping sorcerers battling demons for the fate of humanity.

The worst change though is the inexplicable reworking of the classic Dr Strange look into a kitsch superhero costume with a bizarre starburst on the front.

Thankfully this only appears briefly towards the end of the film, after Morgan has magically dressed him in robes that do a far better job of emulating his comic book look.

Overall, Dr. Strange - as you would expect - is a product of its time. A bit slow in parts and very cheesy, but with some great touches along the way that suggest the people behind it had ambitious plans should it have been picked up to run as a series.

It was clearly going to be a very different superhero show to The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and Captain America that were making similar, difficult, transitions from the comic book page to the television screen at that time.


BACKGROUND:
(from Wikipedia)

Dr. Strange is a 1978 television film based on the Marvel Comics fictional character Dr. Strange, created by Stan Lee and designed by Steve Ditko. Philip DeGuere directed the film and wrote it specifically for television, joining forces with Alex Beaton and Gregory Hoblit to produce it.

Stan Lee served as a consultant on the film, which was created as a pilot for a proposed TV series.

The movie aired on September 6, 1978 in a two-hour block from 8pm to 10pm on CBS, the same network that at that time aired The Amazing Spider-Man (which aired its second season premiere the day before Dr. Strange) and The Incredible Hulk. Unfortunately for DeGuere, CBS did not pick up Dr. Strange as a series.

In an interview found in the January 1985 issue of Comics Feature magazine, Stan Lee recounted largely positive experiences working on Dr. Strange, especially compared with the other live-action Marvel Comics adaptations under the publisher's development deal with CBS and Universal in the late 1970s:
I probably had the most input into that one. I've become good friends with the writer/producer Phil DeGuere. I was pleased with Dr. Strange and The [Incredible] Hulk. I think that Dr. Strange would have done much better than it did in the ratings except that it aired opposite Roots. Those are the only experiences I've had with live action television. Dr. Strange and the Hulk were fine. Captain America was a bit [of a] disappointment and Spider-Man was a total nightmare.
IF YOU LIKE THAT, YOU'LL LOVE THIS:


It should come as no surprise to anyone watching Full Moon's Doctor Mordrid to learn that it was originally developed as Doctor Strange project, but when the rights were lost for the Marvel Comics character it was reworked as its own entity.

Lovecraftian legend and regular Star Trek guest star  Jeffrey Combs stars as the titular Doctor Anton Mordrid, an ageless entity living among mortals in human form, protecting us from demonic entities, such as Kabal (regular villain Brian Thompson), an evil sorcerer he imprisoned 150 years ago.

Guided by a mystical entity he refers to as Monitor, Mordrid is alerted to Kabal's escape from a fifth-dimensional prison and he sets out to prevent 'The Death's Head' from using alchemical skills to take control of The Philosopher's Stone... and then the world.

Mordrid's life, however, becomes a bit more complicated when he attracts the attention of his new neighbour, large-haired police consultant Samantha Hunt (Yvette Nipar), who then seeks his assistance on a 'Satanic' murder case she's working on.

This, naturally, leads to all sorts of trouble when her colleague, no-nonsense cop Tony Gaudio (Jay Acovone) collars Mordrid for the murder.

Coming in at 74-minutes, Doctor Mordrid feels like a TV movie or a pilot for a great '90s cop show (there's some strong language and a scene of random female nudity, but all involve supporting characters that could easily be trimmed for a more family-friendly edit) rather than a blockbuster movie.

Sadly, while it has its moments, there's nothing actually in the film to rival the multi-dimensional, cosmic psychedelia suggested by the DVD's cover.

I have to be honest and admit I was hoping for a bit more "duelling wizards" material, the mid-section of the film instead feels as though it gets rather bogged down in police procedural.

Mordrid's Castle
The final showdown between Mordrid and Kabal - although boasting some decent Harryhausen-esque stop-motion animation - is surprisingly brief, especially when compared to effects heavy final acts in similar films today.

Amidst the flashy sorcerous combat, we get a teasing glimpse of the demonic forces that Kabal is releasing, then wallop, Mordrid slams the door in their stop-motion faces (which is a bit of s shame as they looked quite cool).

As is often the way with these low-budget outings, there are some great ideas at work here with the potential to spark some fantastic, tangential creativity and there's definitely an unavoidable feeling that Full Moon Features were hoping to milk this franchise for at least another film, maybe more.

Mordrid's extra-dimensional castle - where Kabal is imprisoned - is too good a visual alone not to want to revisit the world of Doctor Mordrid.

Comments

  1. I'm so happy you took the time to write about this one Tim. I honestly had forgotten about the Dr. Strange TV movie. After reading your article it brought it all back. I guess the memories of "Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park" and "The Star Wars Holiday Special" caused a memory dump of all late 70s sci fi TV.

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