In the late 70s, CBS looked to be very interested in making a splash with television shows based on comic book heroes, hoping to have the same success that ABC had with Wonder Woman, and even though they did success with The Incredible Hulk, things didn’t go as well with their The Amazing Spider-Man series, but there was a third attempt at series based on a comic book, one taken from the pages of Doctor Strange, sadly, the Sorcerer Supreme would not be picked up for a series and this made-for-television movie remains a somewhat forgotten moment in Marvel history.
The character of Doctor Strange was created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee for the comic book Strange Tales and it dealt with the story of an egotistical surgeon who, having lost the ability to operate due to a tragic car accident, travelled the world over in the hopes of regaining his skill, instead, he encountered the Ancient One and became a master of both the mystical and the martial arts. That is certainly a fairly fantastic premise, and perfect for the world of comic books, but is it good subject matter for 1970s Network television series? The task of finding out fell to writer/producer/director Philip DeGuere who was given a surprisingly ample budget to bring to life an adaptation of one of Marvel’s more “out there” properties and make it accessible for a mainstream American audience, and how did it turn out? Well, let’s just say that even if he’d been given the actual Eye of Agamotto he still wouldn’t have been able to pull it off.
The movie opens with a dramatic title card informing us that “There is a barrier that separates the unknown from the known. Beyond this threshold lies the battleground, where the forces of good and evil are in eternal conflict. The fate of mankind hangs in the balance and awaits the outcome. In every age and time, some of us are called upon to join the battle.” One must admit that is a catchy opening but things get even more interesting as we are immediately thrust into the astral realm where we find Morgan le Fay (Jessica Walter) being given her orders from her demonic master, the Nameless One (David Hooks), who is not pleased with her past failures but is now ready to give her one final chance to prove her worth, by killing Thomas Lindmer (John Mills), the current Sorcerer Supreme, before he can pass on his knowledge to his successor.
Meanwhile, in the Sanctum Sanctorum, Lindmer informs his assistant Wong (Clyde Kusatsu) that they have three days to prepare for the coming battle between themselves and the forces of evil and it is up to Wong to locate Dr. Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten), a psychiatrist who has the potential to be Lindmer’s successor. It’s here where we get quite a big deviation from the source material as this Stephen Strange doesn’t have a sudden career change, in this version he is a psychiatrist instead of a surgeon and there is no tragic automobile accident that drives toward the mystic arts, here he is simply the “Chosen One” and he’s also not at all egotistical, as his comic book counterpart was, he’s actually quite charming if a bit of a womanizer, which seems to be his only real character flaw.
While Wong is off stalking Stephen Strange, Le Fay possesses a young woman named Clea Lake (Anne-Marie Martin), who she uses as a weapon against Thomas Lindmer by pushing him off a bridge to his supposed death, but instead of dying he slowly gets up and magically heals himself. Unfortunately for Clea, being possessed by a centuries-old sorceress isn’t good for one’s mental health and she soon finds herself suffering from some rather nasty psychic aftereffects of the possession, as well as being haunted by visions of Morgan le Fay, lucky for her she is admitted to the hospital where Strange just so happens to work, who himself has had his own visions of Clea and Morgan le Fay, and the two of them are soon embroiled in a darker and more mystical world than either of them could have possibly imagined.
This adaptation of Doctor Strange is certainly a far cry from what could be found in the pages of Marvel Comics but with a rather decent made-for-television budget Philip DeGuere managed to, at least, instill the essence of what made those stories of good versus evil so great and while shooting on the Universal Backlot probably saved them a pretty penny that money was clearly spent on their depictions of the astral realm, which holds up rather well even by today’s standards. Now, I won’t go so far as to say that Peter Hooten is my ideal Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch has pretty much nailed that for me, and while Hooten does a fine job where this television pilot really excelled was in its supporting cast as the great John Mills brought just the right amount of gravitas to the role of Sorcerer Supreme and both Clyde Kusatsu and Anne-Marie Martin more than bolster an already strong cast, of course, the heavy lifting is done by the legendary Jessica Walters and she is more than up to the task portraying Morgan le Fay. Walters is able to generate sympathy and dimension to what could have easily been a one-note villain and it would have been fun to watch her battling Doctor Strange week after week.
• Morgan le Fay was the first Marvel foe to be adapted to live-action as neither the Incredible Hulk nor Spider-Man were allowed to face off against any comic book sourced villains. Though to be fair, her villainy dates back a little further than Marvel Comics, she was just co-opted by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee from the Arthurian myths to become a Marvel foe.
• While on a small bridge Lindmer says to Morgan “You shall not pass” which is an obvious nod to the wizard Gandalf facing off against the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings.
• The voice of the demon Balzaroth was provided by Ted Cassidy who also narrated the opening for The Incredible Hulk television series.
• Stephen Strange has an Incredible Hulk comic book in his office which is a nice tip of the hat to the other comic book adaptation airing on CBS at the time.
• We see the classic horror/comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein playing on a television set while Stephen Strange does his rounds, which could be considered a wink to the genre we are viewing.
• As this show is post-Star Wars Lindmer uses the “Jedi Mind Trick” to get past the officious Head Nurse to see Strange and Clea.
• We get actor Michael Ansara voicing the “Ancient One” but the character never makes a screen appearance, possibly this would have happened if the show had been picked up.
• The costume that Morgan le Fay decks Strange out in is a lot closer to the comic book version than the outfit he wears at the end as the new Sorcerer Supreme.
Sadly, despite an ample budget, an excellent electronic score by composer Paul Chiraha, and going over schedule to provide the film with those fantastic images, Doctor Strange was not a ratings hit, but this was more to do with it being up against the juggernaut that was the Roots mini-series and due to any failings in quality and that it was crushed in the ratings was just a case of bad timing. So, even though this CBS offering was as entertaining as The Incredible Hulk with Bill Bixby and far superior to their Amazing Spider-Man, it was not picked up for series and has become one of those projects that only a handful of Marvel fans will probably even remember.
Doctor Strange (1978)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
Though not a very faithful adaptation of a Marvel Comic this television version of Doctor Strange had more going for it than a half-dozen shows of the time, sadly, it fell victim to poor ratings and got tossed into the dustbin of time.