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DR. STRANGE, the 1978 TV Pilot, Was a Camp Treat Ahead of Its Time

As Doctor Strange promises to drag you by the frontal lobe through space, spirit, and spectacle at the movie theaters this year, you can already go back in time by visiting Dr. Strange, the made-for-tv-movie-but-kind-of-a-television-show-pilot that’s only campy because it was ahead of its audience.

As you can tell by the trailer above, the natural inclination might be to judge this thing as fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000, but it was no shoestring Hail Mary attempt to retain the comic book rights; writer/director Philip DeGuere’s take on this Marvel world was a serious attempt at chasing the kind of success The Incredible Hulk found at CBS, complete with high-level special effects and a beloved Oscar-winning actor in a prominent role. It’s only cheesy because of its barely-there romantic storyline and how poorly it’s aged.

The gist of Dr. Strange is that psychiatrist Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten) is courted both by the dying Sorcerer Supreme Lindmer (John Mills) and the malevolent Morgan LeFay (Jessica Walter (yes, Arrested Development Jessica Walter)) to learn magic and use it for either for the protection of mankind or the destructive rule of it. This thing goes full occult in its first minute, too, delivering an opening with a trippy Sauron-esque presence commanding LeFay to bring it the head of Lindmer or the soul of the new apprentice. It’s a sequence oddly predictive of outer space meetings between Loki or Ronan and The Other—both in look and purpose—and it dared TV watchers more comfortable with Happy Days to keep up.

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LeFay jumps down to a New York City made of smoke and neon (on a backlot in Los Angeles) and uses the body and mind of a young woman named Clea (Anne-Marie Martin) to throw Lindmer off a high walkway into downtown traffic. Clea goes a little nutty afterward and screams her way into Dr. Strange’s hospital. Let the romance bloom!

Hooten—who was in both the original Inglorious Bastards and killer whale horror flick Orca—plays Strange as a vague womanizer, part Trapper John from M*A*S*H,  part Gregory House. His worst sin is that he’s late all the time, marking a big departure from the comic book character’s egotistical dickishness. The movie also does away completely with his status as a surgeon, the car crash that destroys his hands and his global search for a cure, opting instead to mark him as a chosen one by the mystic ring his father randomly gave him. They also made him battle a famous sorceress from Arthurian legend, so there you go. Faithfulness to the comic book wasn’t a huge concern.

Blunt talk for a second? This Strange is a bit of a Gary Stu. He’s instantly good at everything without any training, only fails once before miraculously being awesome immediately afterwards, and he’s just generally an idiot. He’s also barely there as a figure. It seems obvious that Deguere and company set up the would-be series as a vehicle for the Academy Award-owner Mills, with Strange as a semi-sidekick character who could get romantic and do training montages. It also seems clear that Mills may have been swayed by the success of Star Wars to take on a role as potentially goofy as this—one where he Jedi Mind Tricks his way into getting people to do what he wants, wears a hooded cloak, and shoots fuzzy light from his fingertips. He also gives weight to Strange by proclaiming the cost of transitioning from normal doctor to paranormal prestidigitator akin to the price of choosing knowledge over ignorance: a monk-like existence dedicated wholly to protecting earth.

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Speaking of sidekicks, Dr. Strange does score some points for hiring renowned That Guy, Clyde Kusatsu as Wong, Lindmer’s associate who is blissfully devoid of stereotypical Orientalism nonsense. Unlike Strange, he’s a character with agency, he gets his own fight scene, and he’s more firmly embedded in the conflict. It’s unclear, as usual, why a snarky guy with a mustache and a special ring gets to be more powerful. Come to think of it, every guy in this movie has a mustache. 1978, baby. Good times.

The only other genuine problem with the movie is its fight scenes, which solely consist of each character standing as still as possible while CGI (admittedly innovative CGI) shoots from their stiff hands. The CGI beams clash with one another, or slam into the person as they slump over into a magic coma. It’s the kind of arthouse decision that explains why this failed while Lou Ferrigno’s Styrofoam Set Smashing Show ran for five seasons. Things heat up design-wise when we get to the Astral Plane with its kaleidoscopic tunnels and minimalistic, stylized environments, but no one gets above a jog even then.

Dr. Strange is often slow AND devoid of any sense of urgency—even as we’re told that the fate of all life hangs in the balance. Lindmer is, for his part in preventing the collapse of the universe, pretty chill. Interestingly enough, it’s the exact opposite of today’s plot-stuffed Marvel movies. It doesn’t really have more filler than the average one-hour drama of the 1970s, but its disparate styles and stories get in each other’s way.

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Still, before dismissing it as a silly flop—which is was almost exclusively due to being programmed against a re-run of the immensely popular Roots—it’s important to celebrate this artifact for all of its fascinating angles. For one, its Moog nightmare of a score that drills a head-bobbing intensity into confrontational scenes. For two, its clunkiness as a narrative belies all of the influences it wears on its sleeve: hyper-color edges of 1970s prestige horror, television hospital dramas, and ancient sagas. What’s gutsiest about the flop is that it placed this odd olio front and center while stating its funky fantasy pedigree without a hint of shame.

Meant for the psychedelic 60s or the Henson-cheering 80s, Dr. Strange‘s biggest sin is being born too late and too soon. Its failure to launch almost definitely paved the way for Flash Gordon three years later, and the team behind 1992’s Doctor Mordrid—which began its life as a Strange adaptation before losing the rights (and you canread more about it in Shlock & Awe)—was obviously undaunted. Not to mention Marvel, who’s happy to use the character in this new era to launch its latest phase.

It’s fair to cringe when Clea coos “Did you save my life last night?” to the good doctor, and Neil deGrasse Tyson would definitely be angrily tweeting when Lindmer says that sorcery, alchem,y and science are all the same thing, but there’s more to Dr. Strange than meets the campy eye.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 hoary burritos:

2.5 burritos

Did you watch Dr. Strange? Share your memories with us in the comments below!

Images: Universal Television/CBS


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