This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1978 TV movie Dr. Strange!
Dr. Strange, Marvel's Master of the Mystic Arts, was the subject of his own live-action TV movie, part of a wave of superhero adaptations that included The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Spider-Man. Each of those projects met with varying degrees of success, so I guess Marvel was feeling ambitious, offering up one of their lesser known, more fantastical properties to TV producers.
I have only seen Dr. Strange twice--once when it first aired, and then again on VHS when the video store I worked at had a copy. So I thought it'd be fun to revisit it, in the wake of all the big budget Marvel blockbusters of the last few years:
Dr. Strange has a fairly intense opening--over still shots of various otherworldly places, people, and drawings is music that would have fit right in in a 1970s Italian horror film. If you didn't already know Dr. Strange was based on a comic book, you'd have no idea from the opening crawl.
We meet Morgan LeFay (Mrs. Bluth herself, Jessica Walter) talking to some vague, sinister-sounding being about the fight versus good and evil. Morgan is given her mission, one that involves destroying her mortal enemy, who comic fans can recognize as The Ancient One, the lord of mystic arts in our world. Morgan is told that The Ancient One is about to hand over the reigns to his successor, and that she must stop that at all costs!
We then meet Wong (Clyde Kusatsu) in the Sanctum Santorum, caring for his master, Thomas Lindmer (John Mills). Lindmer seems to know trouble's a-brewin', so he instructs Wong to track down someone who is also somehow involved, Dr. Stephen Strange:
Dr. Strange has been busy, both with his practice and his busy social life: with his 70's 'fro and 'stache, he's clearly the (ahem) cock of the walk in this particular hospital. But that doesn't keep him from being a good doctor: we see him care for some patients, and he seems to be a skilled, caring physician.
Lindmer and LeFay have a showdown on the streets of NYC. Lefay doesn't seem to have a true corporeal form, so she takes over the body of a young student named Clea (Anne-Marie Martin) to get the drop on Lindmer and push him off a balcony. The young woman wakes up, realizing what she's done, and runs off screaming. Lefay thinks she's killed Lindmer, but he wakes up and wanders home, clearly the worse for wear.
Lefay continues to haunt Clea, causing her to run out into the street where she's almost hit by a car. She's taken to the hospital, where she is cared for by...you guessed it, Dr. Stephen Strange!
Dr. Strange, who has been having similar dreams, realizes something is amiss here. Lefay is also there, watching Strange closely. Clea, suffering amnesia, is admitted to the psychiatric ward. Lindmer also shows up, and meets with Dr. Strange. Using Jedi-like powers on Strange's uncaring fellow doctors, Lindmer introduces Strange into a, well, strange new world of things beyond science and medicine.
After Clea lapses into a coma, Dr. Strange goes to visit Lindmer at his mysterious home:
After Clea lapses into a coma, Dr. Strange goes to visit Lindmer at his mysterious home. It's here where Dr. Strange breaks away from it's earth-bound trappings, stuff you could see on any TV show, and tries to take us into a whole other world:
Morgan LeFay's direct supervisor is the above glowing eye-thingy, who is never named but is either Mephisto or Dorammu, both villains who have tangled with Dr. Strange in the comics. He (it?) threatens LeFay that if she does not kill Strange--who is clearly in line to take over for Lindmer--she will be confined to a life of eternal torment. It's all sticks, no carrots in the underworld!
Stephen Strange is scared of all this, so he rejects Lidnmer's offer to teach him more and leaves, taking up with Clea, who is now out of her coma and out back to normal (somewhat). LeFay shows up at the Sanctum and attacks Wong, who also has mystical powers:
But he proves no match for Lefay, allowing her to attack Lindmer. LeFay then goes after Clea, putting her back into a coma. She tries to entrance Dr. Strange, taking him to her home dimension.
LeFay promises him anything he wants--power beauty, wealth--and it seems like Strange is going to follow the path of the Dark Arts! But when he sees what LeFay has done to Lindmer, Strange rebels and uses his newfound powers against her.
Dr. Strange manages to escape LeFay's clutches, and returns to his home dimension. Dorammu does what he says he would do, turning LeFay into an old hag and letting her rot alone in some corner of Hell, in a fairly intense scene.
Back home, Wong and Lindmer wake up, and Lindmer reveals that he wasn't defeated by Lefay, he was merely playing possum to test Strange into seeing if he would make the right decision--reject earthly pleasures, and take up the cause of defending mankind from evil via the mystical arts:
Dr. Strange returns to his practice at the hospital, as well as picking back up with Clea. Via a TV report, we see that Morgan LeFay is back, too...this time as a sort of self-help guru (a nice gag), vowing to help young people since they, as she says ominously, "the future."
The movie ends with Dr. Strange impishly using his powers on a local street magician, who isn't quite sure how he pulled off an impressive trick. Strange laughs, and then turns towards the sky, ready for the future:
...just the beginning!
Considering how completely Dr. Strange has disappeared (it was released on VHS in the 80s, with exactly zero notice from Marvel, and has never been put on DVD), you would think that means it's a total disaster, but it's really not: the performances aren't too bad, and it treats the "world of the mystical arts" thing seriously. By keeping things hazy and draped in shadow, I think it looks way less cheesy than the Spider-Man and Captain America TV shows that were on at the time.
The part where Dr. Strange goes wrong is that it spends way too much time on hospital drama; lots of screen time goes by with Strange bickering with hospital staff, the kind of stuff you could see in a half-dozen medical dramas at the time (I half expected Trapper John, M.D. to show up at some point). I can only assume that some of the executives involved with this show--which was fairly unusual stuff for network TV at the time--wanted to hedge their bets by putting in as much traditional TV material as they could, to balance out all the magic, other-dimensional fooferaw.
Obviously CBS, the network airing Dr. Strange, had zero faith in this, deciding to air it up against Roots, where it of course failed to garner any ratings. Even though I watched Roots along with my family, I still remember taking the night off from it and watching Dr. Strange upstairs in my parents' bedroom. I remember thinking it was pretty cool, and for years wondered why it had so completely disappeared.
Peter Hooten does a decent job as Strange...the big 70s fro is a little much to take, but maybe he'd trim that back a bit if Dr. Strange had gone to series. Jessica Harper chews the scenery as Morgan LeFay, but that's understandable in a show like this. Clyde Kusatsu is solid as Wong, a serious man who doesn't have a lot of time for folly, especially when it comes to training this new doctor.
Maybe all of this was just too fanciful to work as a regular series, and even if Dr. Strange had been a hit it wouldn't have led to a series like The Incredible Hulk. Still, I think it's a decent effort, and doesn't deserve the MIA status it currently has.