WAIT A MINUTE!?!?!? Dr. Strange??? I’m sure many of you are saying, “But didn’t you review that Marvel movie already???” Let me clarify… Yes, I did review the Marvel Studios movie Doctor Strange. This time I’m talking about Dr. Strange. Still not with me? This is the made for TV movie from 1978 that aired on CBS and was to serve as a pilot for a potential series.
The movie opens up in some fantastical place that should not exist. It’s a dark and sparse realm where we see Morgan LeFay (Jessica Walter). She’s in a state of contemplation when she is summoned by her demon, the Nameless One. It’s a time of a transition of power and he wants to assert himself in the Earthly realm. The only thing standing in his way is the Sorcerer Supreme, and he wants to send Morgan to remove that obstacle, whether it is the aging Sorcerer himself, or the one selected to be his successor. It is here that we meet Lindmer (John Mills).
He’s the current Sorcerer Supreme and he has elected to guard the material plane. He’s also several hundred years old and can no longer fight the good fight. He sends his pupil, a man named Wong (Clyde Kusatsu), to track down Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten). Wong finds him as a resident doctor for the psychiatric wing of a hospital. At this same time Morgan comes to Earth, and using the body of a young psychology student named Clea Lake (Anne-Marie Martin), attacks Lindmer. The act has caused psychic damage to Clea and she starts to see Morgan everywhere. This causes her to end up in the hospital under Dr. Strange’s care. Lindmer finally introduces himself to Strange and convinces him to come to his home in the hopes of saving Clea, who is now in a coma.
Strange gets more than he bargained for in terms of what he must do and why he must do it, but he does it anyway and rescues Clea’s soul. Later Strange dismisses the entire psychic event as rubbish, but when he has a meeting with Morgan (after she seemingly defeated Lindmer in battle and had him taken to her area of hell by Asmodeus to appease the Nameless One) he’s forced to face the truth about everything that Lindmer told him. Morgan tries to seduce him because she finds Strange to be attractive, and after 500 years she longs for the warm embrace of a man.
This made for TV movie is a hot mess, and yet I am oddly enough drawn to it. For something made in 1978, the production values are actually quite strong. Green Screen visual effects were already in use by this time, but there was no such thing as a purely digital effect as has been used in the Marvel movies of today. Because of that the set and production designers had to really think hard on their feet when it came to the realm that Morgan lives in, and yet it somehow seems to fit within the artistic stylings of Dr. Strange comic book creator Steve Ditko. Even the home that Lindmer lives in has a very trippy design to it making it believable that it’s more than just the Sanctum Sanctorum, but also a home. Also the character origin of Strange is really turned on its ear. Instead of being the brilliant and equally arrogant neurosurgeon, this time he’s a very caring Psychiatrist, who is all about doing anything he can to make the people under his care better. Even during a staff meeting when the Chief Of Staff complains about how Stephen is utilizing a free bed for one of his patients with a drinking problem, Stephen responds with “I see this as part of our debt to the community.” This is a HUGE departure from the comic book and MCU Stephen Strange who would only take on a case if it meant more fame and fortune for himself. The fact that Strange was portrayed in this way could be chalked up to the fact that this movie was to air in prime time, and in 1978 perhaps it was felt that it should have a sense of optimism. In the end only Stan Lee would know, as this was the one movie project that he had the most creative input. Then there is Lindmer. Here we have an English actor who was roughly 70 years old when this aired, and he isn’t even regarded as the Ancient One! That credit goes to a disembodied voice who has less than one full minute of screen presence, played by the uncredited, but always recognizable, Michael Ansara. Instead Lindmer serves the Ancient One as the Sorcerer Supreme, which is more than radically different from either the comic book or the 2016 movie where Tilda Swinton played the Ancient One. Anne-Marie’s Clea Lake was something of an Easter Egg because she does become both Dr. Strange’s protégé and lover in the comic book, but here she is more of a damsel in distress, plus her origin story here as a student at NYU is also quite the change from how Strange meets her in the printed page. As for Morgan LeFay, she never met Dr. Strange until 6 months later in comic book after this movie aired on TV, so this just shows how completely warped and reinterpreted the story was made. Even the Nameless One appears to be some weird take on Strange’s arch-nemesis Dormammu.
With all of that, this film’s biggest drawback is the acting. There isn’t any! Even the Nameless One, who is a stop-motion effect of a monster, emotes better than some of this cast. While Peter Hooten did a great job at looking like Dr. Strange, his acting was purely non-existent. He had a frozen face making virtually all of his expressions look the same, and there were numerous scenes where he looked like he was about to say something, only the scene would go on without any further lines spoken from him. As for Mills’ acting, his was also rather two-dimensional, but in his case (as well as Hooten’s) it was further hampered by some of the worst dialogue looping ever, making roughly a third of what he was saying completely incomprehensible. As I said before, Clea was the helpless victim, and Martin did a competent job at that. She might have had a successful career in horror as a Scream Queen! I do need to add, however, that there were two areas in this movie that I found particularly strong. First, I liked many of the hospital scenes where Strange works at. The operations, terminology, and even the set design, certainly helped to give this movie a believability from early on, no doubt to help audience member’s suspend disbelief when the more magical moments would come in to play. Second, the music was written by Paul Chihara, and much of it was electronic minimalism, which helped to create an almost sense of horror throughout the movie. I’ve always felt that Dr. Strange would benefit greatly if it would dip its toe in the waters of the horror genre, and this made-for-TV movie did just that!
So what we have here is a movie that is highly inconsistent. Even the use of magical powers is nothing more than watching people glow and shoot energy bolts at each other. Having a movie with battling sorcerers is a tricky thing to do (although Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from 2010 did it quite well), and once again the sense of actual magic and the power to conjure seems lacking, although I found it at times to be more satisfying than what Marvel’s 2016 film presented. Bad acting, mixed with great sets and music, again makes this movie one amazingly hot mess, and also one great guilty pleasure.
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