Ahead of the upcoming Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Doctor Strange, Universal Studios is releasing the original 1978 TV movie, Dr. Strange, for the first time on DVD on October 10th. And let me tell you, ‘strange’ is definitely the right name for this movie.
The film follows Stephen Strange, a psychiatrist and heir to the role of Sorcerer Supreme.
When the current Sorcerer Supreme, Lindmer, feels his time in the role coming to an end, he makes preparations to find Strange and stave off Morgan LeFey, who is determined to kill Lindmer for her demonic master. When LeFey’s plot draws in unsuspecting psychology student Clea Lake, Strange takes her under his care and is drawn into this battle between good and evil.
The story takes some liberties with the source material; unlike the Doctor Strange we’ll be seeing as part of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, this Strange never goes through a car accident or a crisis of faith; there’s no trip to the East to learn magic; in fact, many facets of Doctor Strange’s story aren’t present at all.
It’s a very loose adaptation, and one can only assume that had the TV movie lead to a TV series as was originally intended, the creators might have reaped the mythos of Doctor Strange a bit more.
But that didn’t happen. So they couldn’t.
What we’re left with is the instantly likeable Peter Hooten, playing a Doctor Strange who is more ‘doctor’ than ‘strange’. Although magic is present throughout the film, Strange himself doesn’t really dabble with sorcery until the third act. Instead, we see him get glimpses of a world he doesn’t quite understand, whilst instead pursuing logical answers and the safe health of his patient/love interest Clea Lake.
Starring alongside Hooten is Jessica Walter of Arrested Development fame, playing the evil sorceress Morgan LeFey. Walter brings an alluring creepiness to the role, as she struggles to appease her master by ending the lives of Lindmer and Strange. Unfortunately, the film’s main weakness appears when she starts to come close to achieving her goals. There are occasions where LeFey has the chance to kill Strange, but instead lets him live because she starts to find him attractive. Upon confronting her master, she is ridiculed for ‘being a woman’ and letting ‘love’ cloud her judgement.
At that turning point, what was otherwise a solid story begins to become slightly odd and convoluted. LeFey is far less menacing as you start to wonder just how sexist the script will end up being. And by the time the film gets to the point where she tries to seduce Strange in a weird love scene, it has lost all track of the story it started off with. As the runtime draws to a close, rushed efforts are made to hurriedly transform Strange from an affable doctor to a sorcerer capable of defeating this evil enchantress. The budget is then blown on a few (very short) magic battles late in the game, some weird trippy set pieces as Strange travels to Hell (or the ‘Fourth Dimension’, as the film insists on calling it) and the ‘Astral Plane’ (the latter of which, whilst suitable levels of Doctor Strange trippy, kind of just looks like the opening to an old Doctor Who serial) and some awful costumes for when Lindmer and Strange are in their magic garb.
The film then ends with a mystery that would have no doubt carried on to the television series, but now just doesn’t make sense.
It’s a shame, because the film took some concepts of the Doctor Strange mythos and ran with it in an admirable and interesting way. However, with the questionable writing of the female villain meaning that the story wasn’t as cohesive as it could have been, it may be fortunate that its status as a TV Movie/Pilot didn’t allow for the creators’ true vision to see the light of day.
The jazzy, trippy soundtrack is awesome, though. So that’s something.
Dir: Phillip DeGuerre Jr.
Scr: Phillip DeGuerre Jr.
Cast: Peter Hooten, Jessica Walter, Anna-Marie Martin, John Mills & Clyde Kusatsu
Prd: Alex Beaton
Music: Paul Chihara
DOP: Enzo A. Martinelli
Runtime: 93 Minutes
Dr. Strange is out now
The new Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Doctor Strange is in cinemas October 25th