Even the biggest superheroes had to start somewhere. Batman made his screen debut in a 15-part serial for Columbia, where he spent the entire time tussling with a ‘Japanese’ criminal called Dr Daka (actually Irish-American character actor J Carrol Naish). Superman also made his first live-action appearance in a 40s serial, with Kirk Alyn wearing some very large underpants as the Man of Steel.
Marvel’s roster of characters started to get their own shows in the 1970s, with Spider-Man leading the way and The Incredible Hulk following him with a successful, five-year run on CBS. Less widely remembered than either series, however, was CBS’ Dr Strange, which received just one 90-minute TV movie in 1978.
For many TV viewers, it would have served as their first introduction to the master of magic created by Steve Ditko 15 years earlier. Unfortunately, the show’s scheduling against the hit series Roots harmed Dr Strange’s ratings, at least according to Stan Lee, and the pilot never went to series.
This summer, the mystical superhero gets his first feature film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton and all the lavish visual effects Marvel can afford to throw at it. Back in 1978, writer-director Philip DeGuere didn’t have quite the level of resources to fall back on – though the ropiness of the 70s Dr Strange is all part of its charm…
In the comics, Doctor Stephen Strange is a neurosurgeon whose career is ruined after a car accident damages his hands. Descending into boozy melancholy, Dr Strange eventually finds renewed purpose under the tutelage of the Ancient One, a Tibetan sorcerer who teaches Strange the ways of magic and martial arts.
The Dr Strange series can’t really afford dramatic car crashes, trips to Tibet or neurosurgery, so it makes this incarnation of Strange (played by Peter Hooten, with an envy-inducing big-hair-and-moustache ensemble) a psychiatrist. (Having your medical professional dispense advice from behind a desk is much easier on the pocket than expensive surgery scenes.)
Instead of a car accident, Dr Strange’s odyssey into the realm of black magic is triggered by Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter), a powerful supervillain despatched by a demon, The Nameless One, to kill the Sorcerer Supreme. That sorcerer is Thomas Lindmer, played by the great Sir John Mills, a genial old wizard who lives in New York with his faithful sidekick, Wong (Clyde Kusatsu). When Le Fay possesses a college student, Clea Lake (Anne-Marie Martin) and tries to kill Lindmer, Dr Strange is drawn into the fight against evil, and eventually accepts the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme from his new-found mentor.
Initially slow to get going, Dr Strange is tided along by its spectacularly groovy 70s soundtrack, which takes in all kinds of electronic, funk and jazz elements. This really comes into its own in the film’s second half, when Strange, who already looks a bit like Ron Burgundy, descends into another plane of reality to the strains of Paul Chihara’s music. Remember the theme tune to Manimal? That was also Chihara.
The Dr Strange soundtrack really needs to be heard to be appreciated:
As the soundtrack phases and flutters, Dr Strange descends through time and space to rescue Clea from a demon, which has snatched the woman’s consciousness from the physical plane. This other reality is imagined as a wonderfully kitsch amalgam of weird filters and lava lamp-style vortices of colour. The demon Balzaroth is imagined as a black-clad figure teetering on the back of a wayward horse. Morgan Le Fay is here,looking resplendent in a red dress and matching cape. Her supervillain credentials are undercut somewhat by the startling line, “I’m but a woman. A man attracted me,” when she’s asked why she let Dr Strange escape.
Dr Strange takes rather longer to don his own purple garb, made famous by the comic books. Initially resistant to the call of the mystical, but eventually agrees to take on the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme after another brush with the evil Le Fay.
To modern eyes, Dr Strange almost looks like a parody of a 70s TV series, with its hurriedly-built sets, low-fi effects and portentous dialogue (The Nameless One, voiced by David Hook, resolutely refuses to stop spouting quasi-Shakespearian monologues). We can only imagine how John Mills, star of stage and screen, felt about wearing a cape and pretending to fire magic bolts, but he provides Dr Strange with a grandfatherly presence, like an Obi Wan Kenobi who can’t stop pipe smoking. In one scene, he’s thrown off a bridge and just gets up and dusts himself off. That’s a pretty cool move for an aging thesp.
Peter Hootens, meanwhile, is absolutely hilarious as Dr Strange – a flirty, suave macho version of the hero who has none of the comic book character’s dark nights of the soul, at least not in the pilot. In place of injured hands and existential angst, this Dr Strange merely has a habit of turning up late for meetings.
If anything, Strange is more like Tom Selleck in Magnum PI or 70s dandy Jason King. There are precisely two main characters in Dr Strange, and both of them fall wildly in love with Strange. Le Fay, an otherwise cool antagonist, even risks her own neck to try to seduce Strange into joining her side. Strange almost succumbs to her wiles, but manages to compose himself just in the nick of time.
It’s here that Dr Strange finally gets to wear a robe worthy of a necromancer (though not the final purple get-up from the comics), and it’s a natty combination of big red collars and gold detailing. Not for the first time, though, Strange is upstaged by Le Fay, who rages, “Don’t defy me Stephen, or I’ll take my pleasure from you in another way!”
Even Strange looks a bit surprised by this outburst. Fortunately, he discovers his mojo and manages to rescue Lindmer from the clutches of darkness. And thus the stage is set for a series of small-screen adventures – or so CBS hoped.
Yes, Dr Strange is shoddy and dated, but we can’t help warming to its naff charms in spite of ourselves. The pilot’s been widely mocked in the past, and it’s easy to see why – only vaguely faithful to the comics, it’s something of an easy target. But as the film draws to a close and Dr Strange accepts the role of Sorcerer Supreme, we find ourselves wishing that it had been given a full series.
Given a chance, it could have been the trippiest, funniest comic book series of the 1970s.
A final fun fact: Anne-Marie Martin, who plays Clea Lake, later married Michael Crichton and co-wrote the blockbuster disaster film Twister with him – which proves that truth sometimes is stranger than fiction.