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Back in 2015, Yahoo Movies asked Stan Lee which of his “lesser-known” heroes he wished had a higher profile. The Marvel maestro didn’t hesitate: Doctor Strange. “I like him as much as all the others, but for some reason he isn’t as popular now,” Lee said. “In the beginning, [Marvel Cinematic Universe producers] didn’t include him on the list of characters they wanted to make a movie of…. But I campaigned for him.”
Then Lee reminded us that the new version of Doctor Strange opening this weekend wasn’t even the first movie about the Sorcerer Supreme. That honor would go to a 1978 TV movie that was supposed to launch a new super-show. “It was pretty good for its time, but they decided not to do a series,” he said.
Yes, before Benedict Cumberbatch donned the cloak for what is shaping up to be another MCU blockbuster, an actor named Peter Hooten, best know for his role in the original Inglorious Bastards, originated the role of Doctor Strange. Back in 1978, thanks to the public fascination with superheroes and the supernatural, Strange was deemed ready for prime time. CBS already had the live-action The Amazing Spider-Man and the Bill Bixby-Lou Ferrigno hit The Hulk on its schedule, and Captain America would arrive the following year in the first of two made-for-TV movies.
With creative input from Lee, writer-director Philip DeGuere and CBS conceived their Doctor Strange feature (styled Dr. Strange) as a backdoor pilot, with the hopes that it could be translated into an hourly program to be paired with The Hulk.
The two-hour film aired on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 1978, and while praised by Lee and cherished by fans, Dr. Strange seemingly vanished into another dimension after that initial airing. Various VHS versions came and went, before going out of print in the 1990s. Occasional blurry transfers wound up on YouTube, only to be quickly snuffed out by the copyright cops.
But with Doctor Strange opening in theaters on Friday, the original Dr. Strange is, as of this week, available for the first time on DVD. We went back through the mists of time to that alternate dimension of 1978 to watch the original movie about the Master of the Mystic Arts and to see how the psychedelic 1960s comic created by Lee and Steve Ditko was translated into the disco-fied ’70s. This is what we learned.
After the title cards establish the stakes, the movie opens in the Dark Dimension, which is surprisingly faithful to Ditko’s comic conception.
This is where the Nameless One (essentially a stand-in for Strange archnemesis Dormammu) charges the nigh-immortal sorceress Morgan Le Fey with destroying Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme.
Morgan is played by Jessica Walter, better recognized these days as Lucille Bluth, the matriarch of the Arrested Development clan.
The Not-Really-Ancient One
Dr. Strange takes several liberties with the source material, including revamping the traditional origin story. Right off the bat, we discover that in lieu of the Ancient One ensconced in his Himalayan hideaway, Strange’s teacher has been replaced with an aged Englishman named Thomas Lindmer (Oscar winner John Mills), whose last name is a riff on “Merlin.” (DeGuere apparently decided to reconfigure the Eastern spiritual trappings of the comics into an Arthurian framework, perhaps because he felt it more accessible to viewers of the time.)
Lindmer, along with his apprentice/assistant Wong, has set up shop in the Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwich Village — otherwise known as the Universal Studios backlot. While the art directors do a credible job with the building’s look, they inexplicably mess up the address. Instead of the standard 177A Bleecker Street location, this Sanctum is at 22 Bleecker Place.
One change for the better: Wong (Clyde Kusatsu), often depicted in the early comics as a glorified gofer, has been upgraded. At one point Lindmer declares, “You’re a pupil and a friend, not a servant.”
Meet Dr. Strange
As portrayed by Hooten, this Strange is pure ’70s, a permed swinger who looks like he’s ready to hit Studio 54 after a round of nurse-flirting at the hospital.
Speaking of, the movie spends a lot of time in the hospital, where some questionable medical practices are taking place (when it doubt, drugs for everyone!) If it weren’t for the trippy opening, you’d think Dr. Strange was going to be a medical drama, not a dimension-spanning superhero yarn. Another curious creative decision that deviates from the Marvel source material: For some reason, the movie has changed the doctor’s specialty, from neurosurgeon to psychiatric resident.
The Damsel in Distress
Once arriving in our dimension, Morgan possesses a young woman named Clea (Eddie Benton, later known by her stage name, Anne-Marie Martin, and one of Michael Crichton’s ex-wives) to help attack Lindmer. The affected Clea winds up in the hospital under the care of Strange after they share a psychic bond while watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In the comics, the character of Clea is Strange’s sorcery student and eventual paramour, who also happens to be related to Dormammu.
New Origin Story
Dr. Strange dispenses with the usual Strange origin story: there’s no horrific injury or pilgrimage to Tibet, as there is in the comics and the new movie. Instead, Hooten’s doctor turns out to have been marked by magic from an early age. Lindmer and Strange’s father were acquaintances, and the old wizard had been keeping tabs on the young man, especially after his parents were killed in a suspicious accident.
Star Wars Influence
With George Lucas’s space opera exploding into pop culture the year before, Dr. Strange borrows several tropes from the film. The Lindmer-Strange relationship is very Obi-Wan-Luke, right down to the Oscar-pedigreed British actor in the mentor role. Meanwhile, Lindmer’s go-to spell is basically the Jedi mind trick.
Finally, after lots of dithering around the hospital, the action kicks in. Strange has to teleport into the Dark Dimension to save Clea and Lindmer from Morgan and her hench-demons. That leads to these kind of groovy effects shots.
While not as spiffy as the visuals of the new Doctor Strange, the idea is pretty similar.
The Doctor Is In
At the end, after rescuing his friends, Lindmer transfers his powers to Strange, making him the new disco-ready Sorcerer Supreme.
Although the pace could use a jolt and many of the campy story choices weren’t ideal, Dr. Strange had potential as a series. Watching the movie now, it’s not hard to imagine Dr. Strange becoming a superhero version of The X-Files, where Strange and pals encounter different supernatural threats each week. CBS decided not to take Dr. Strange to series due to low ratings and high costs (although it’s hard to tell now, the movie ran well over budget due to its complex-for-the-time effects.) While the Sorcerer Supreme was able to thwart a demonic plot, he was unable to topple the formidable combination of Eight Is Enough and Roots on ABC.
Perhaps, in an alternate universe, Dr. Strange became a hit and ran for years. Here on Earth, however, it remains an artifact of another age, worth an exploration for the curious… or those in need of Strange fix before this weekend’s main event.