Doctor Strange: The Wonderful Weirdness of the 1978 TV Movie

Despite what you may have heard, the 1978 Doctor Strange TV movie is one of Marvel's better early TV efforts.

Marvel’s 1978 Doctor Strange TV movie (officially known as Dr. Strange) is admittedly, something of an acquired taste. But there’s an undeniable charm and air of mystery about this particular Dr. Strange movie, although it may not be quite to everyone’s taste.

Dr. Strange is a deliberately paced origin story set in New York City that’s light on action and long on exposition and sometimes questionable special effects. The eastern elements of Strange’s origin are scrubbed in favor of Arthurian overtones with Morgan le Fay (Jessica Walter playing not necessarily the Marvel Comics version) as the villain and The Ancient One replaced by “Lindmer” a mentor who is, essentially, Merlin (wonderfully played by Sir John Mills!). Clyde Kusatsu’s Wong isn’t a robed manservant, but an ally and student of the Ancient One, and helps introduce Strange into his new world. Clea is here, as well, played by Eddie Benton, but she isn’t the spawn of an extradimensional entity, but simply a college student who falls on the wrong side of Morgan le Fay. Stephen Strange himself is wonderfully portrayed by Peter Hooten, and I can’t help but feel we were a little robbed not getting more of him in the role. 

This basic approach was something many Marvel TV properties were usingThe Incredible Hulk offered an almost unrecognizable origin story for Bruce Banner’s transformation and a TV formula that had more in common with The Fugitive than it did the work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The Amazing Spider-Man moved Peter Parker to graduate school, ditched Uncle Ben, and offered lo-fi practical effects for the webbing and eye-popping stuntwork for the wall-crawling. Captain America, well…that’s a long story, but don’t worry about it because those two TV movies are so bad that I can’t even make apologies for them. 

Remember how I referred to this as “deliberately paced?” That is, perhaps, an understatement. Strange doesn’t don a costume until the movie’s final act, and there’s little to indicate this is a Marvel Comics character at all for much of it. If you were to tune in at a random point for most of this, you could easily mistake it for a hospital drama that your grandmother would have enjoyed on a Tuesday night or something. But when the supernatural stuff happens, it’s got some legitimate atmosphere.

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The retro synth-heavy score by Paul Chihara helps with that, and should appeal to Stranger Things fans. “[director Philip DeGuere] encouraged me to do an electronic score, which in 1978 was quite forward,” Chihara recently recalled to The Hollywood Reporter. The Nameless One, an extradimensional demon that Morgan le Fay answers to is creepy in its minimalism. You may, if you so choose (I sure do), choose to read this character as the dread Dormammu from the comics. And seriously, you’ll totally see a little bit of a parallel between Stephen Strange’s ’70s psychedelic style first astral trip at the hands of the Ancient One in this movie and the one in Marvel’s big screen version.

Director Philip DeGuere seemed to know he had an uphill battle from the start, as magic wasn’t an area of fantasy currently being heavily explored on TV at the time. “It has to do with dealing with an area which is completely foreign to TV,” he told Starlog Magazine in 1978. “Unless people are familiar with myth, folklore, and fairtyales on the one hand or fantasy literature on the other, it’s difficult to understand a story like this.”

And while the production values certainly aren’t exceptional by today’s standards, they were top of the line in 1978. DeGuere said at the time, “the picture went five days over schedule and probably $50,000-100,000 over budget” because of the challenges involved with bringing Doctor Strange’s world to life on TV. Clyde Kusatsu recently told The Hollywood Reporter that, “There was a lot of downtime because what they tried to capture couldn’t be captured. Enzo Martinelli, a real classic veteran cinematographer, was trying to make it work. The clock is ticking as the account register is going. It’s costing money.”

And while we rarely see Doctor Strange in costume, which DeGuere described at the time as “the single greatest worry in this entire project,” legendary Doctor Strange comic artist Frank Brunner provided concept art, and the final product was brought to life by costume designer Devon Wood. Like everything else associated with this project, they’re certainly unique and distinctive.

Here’s a look at Brunner’s concept art:

Dr. Strange aired on September 6th, 1978 opposite a rerun of NBC’s Roots, the television event of the decade, and it got trounced in the ratings. Of course, “trounced in the ratings” in 1978 numbers still means it probably did more than a number of TV shows do on a good night right now, and of course, there were no DVRs or online viewership to boost the numbers over the next few days. “I’m sure if I looked back at the numbers to see what we had back in ’78, those were the kind of numbers that could be sustainable on the CW or something like that,” Clyde Kusatsu told The Hollywood Reporter. He’s probably right.

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It’s widely known that the plan was to make a TV series, and the poor showing of this movie shut it down. It’s perhaps less well known that the initial plan was for there to be two Dr. Strange TV movies in the hopes of launching the series (a similar approach had been taken with Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon). “In the second story he will find himself more directly involved in a cosmic struggle for the fate of the Earth,” DeGuere told Starlog in 1977. “I think everybody leans toward wanting to believe that there are higher powers than what we ordinarily come into contact with. Steve Strange is in line to become the supreme sorcerer of the planet Earth, and therefore the guardian of the earthly plane.”

Peter Hooten himself has no regrets about his version of the Doctor’s failure to launch. “There were certainly some things that I regret being involved in but Dr. Strange was one of the best things that I’ve ever been involved with,” he recently told AICN. “I really enjoyed it so much.”

Dr. Strange has a brand new DVD release from Shout! Factory, “remastered from the original film elements.” That’s more than The Amazing Spider-Man TV series can say, which is a crime in itself. But if you’re looking for a different take on the Master of the Mystic Arts after seeing him on the big screen, Dr. Strange is worth your time, especially late at night, and best enjoyed with a candle, some incense and perhaps a glass of something strong (or some contraband).