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May 19, 2022

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The Awful 1970s ‘Doctor Strange’ TV Movie Still Has a Little Marvel Magic

Spider-Man: No Way Home brought back previous Spider-Mans. And upcoming Marvel sequel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness explodes with more alternate reality shenanigans in theaters now. Which is the only excuse we need to revisit the good doctor’s previous live-action incarnation: a 1978 TV movie you can now buy on Blu-ray.

Benedict Cumberbatch stepped into Doctor Strange’s cape as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2016. The bearded sorcerer played crucial roles in the later Avengers movies and messed with the multiverse in No Way Home, setting up the Multiverse of Madness. Way before the MCU, however, there was a something of a Marvel craze back in the late 1970s.

On Sept. 6, 1978, CBS aired a TV movie featuring mystical Marvel comics character and hubristic medic Dr. Stephen Strange. CBS hoped this pilot movie would launch a TV series as successful as the popular ’70s Marvel shows The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man.

It didn’t. But there are still some intriguing lessons to learn from the ’70s Dr. Strange.

The TV movie certainly has some problems. For a start, the producers rewrote Strange’s origins to make him a psychiatrist instead of a disabled neurosurgeon. That could work — a man dedicated to the exacting scientific study of human behavior forced to grapple with very unscientific magic — but it removes a lot of the character’s hubris. And the movie spends an awkwardly long time as a medical drama, as if the filmmakers thought audiences wanted to see Quincy, M.E. with magic guys shooting lightning at each other.

Worst of all, sorry to say, is the film’s star. Before Cumberbatch donned the magical cape, there was Peter Hooten, who you may know from nothing else ever (unless, of course, you’re a connoisseur of cult flicks like Orca or the original Inglorious Bastards). Director Philip DeGuere pushed hard for Hooten over a bigger-name actor, presumably because he wanted the film to look like a badly dubbed aftershave ad. Whether wooing patients or battling demons in the astral plane, Hooten’s emotional range stretches from half-asleep to wondering if he’s left the oven on.

Great ‘stache though.

Now, obviously it’s unfair to compare the technical qualities of 1970s TV against today’s sophisticated blockbusters. Even other modern blockbusters can’t hold a candle to the eye-popping kaleidoscope of CGI wonders in the 2016 movie or the rest of the MCU. Yet the fantasy sequences of the ’70s Strange, bodged together with a wind machine and some colored gels, actually work. Because the ’70s Strange put some effort into something the 2016 Strange skimped on: actual characters.

Take away the gobsmacking effects, and the 2016 Strange is a pretty limp origin story. For example, when Cumberbatch was transported to the astral plane, it was just to show off the trippy effects. But when Hooten’s Strange went on the same trip, he was attempting to rescue possessed student Clea Lake, a task for which he was woefully unprepared. As lame as the effects are, the sequence has some actual human drama and tension to draw you in.

Hey, her name’s Clea Lake! I just got that. Anyway, Dr. Strange didn’t launch a new ’70s hit show. The TV movie was beaten in the ratings by a rerun of Roots.

Another highlight of ’70s Strange is the pulsing, John Carpenter-esque synth score. But the best thing is the villain.

In 2016 Strange, Mads Mikkelson is on creepy form — with neon mascara on point — but his motivations are one-note. By contrast, ’70s Strange has an absolutely brilliant baddie in Morgan Le Fay, who’s demonic and sexy and even a bit sympathetic. Once again, it’s the compelling character that makes the difference.

The glorious Jessica Walter from Arrested Development and Archer vamps away madly as Morgan, a centuries-old enchanting enchantress whose main superpower is lethal side-eye. Some of the best parts of the film come when Walter’s demonic cheekbones haunt Clea in a safe-for-work version of Italian giallo horror movies, like Dario Argento’s 1977 shocker Suspiria.

There’s more to Le Fay than immaculate lipstick, though. She’s as motivated by vanity as by evil, and her desires bring her into conflict with her mission to destroy Strange. “I am still a woman! I would feel the warmth of a man’s arms again!” she wails to her demonic master, a furry glove puppet with a desk lamp up its backside. That leads to the intriguing climax, in which the seductive sorceress tempts Hooton’s Strange with a shortcut to fantastical powers. It’s a compelling twist compared with the 2016 film’s montage of gaining powers through yawnsome training.

Unfortunately, there’s no chance either Peter Hooten or the late Jessica Walter will appear in Multiverse of Madness. Still, for all its flaws, the ’70s Dr. Strange proves an essential point that suspenseful writing and compelling characters imbue even the wobbliest effects with genuine tension. Another reminder that engaging stories make visual effects exciting, and not the other way around.