With the imminent release this autumn of Benedict Cumberbatch's take on the Marvel character, it’s time to take a step back in time to the late 1970s to the TV film version of Dr. Strange. As such, this adaptation of the film is going to appeal to those fans who follow all things Strange, but it may also hold considerable appeal to those addicts who want to backtrack and enjoy some of the Universal output that never quite made it to series level.
On balance, this emerged when the likes of Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers (both receiving European theatrical releases) were the forefront examples of effects techniques and, surprisingly, after its September 1978 debut on CBS in the United States, was never expanded into a full series. However, according to some research, this particular pilot played opposite the acclaimed miniseries of Alex Haley's Roots, so it probably did face an uphill battle.
It is a pity, as it is one of the better television pilots from that time, with a reasonable plot-line and a good introduction for its time to the character which is clearly going to gain far more exposure and success when the new film version opens later this year.
Jessica Walter goes from the Misty of Evelyn Draper, still her best performance in the 1971 Clint Eastwood stalker classic, to the mystical Morgan Le Fay, a 15th century witch who has been sent by the upper levels of evil to destroy Sorcerer Supreme Lindmer (the excellent John Mills, who holds the film together). She almost succeeds in an early confrontation by using a young lady, Clea Lake (Eddie Benton, who then appeared alongside Jamie Lee Curtis in the original Prom Night in 1980), but Lindmer survives. When Le Fay gets inside her head and causes her to run from her apartment, Lake is involved in a near-accident with a taxi driver, who takes her to a hospital where Dr. Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten), who works in the psychiatric ward, helps her, little knowing that she and Strange will soon become the key to a battle for greater supremacy on Earth….
Stan Lee was a consultant on this particular version, and had the show been picked up then it would have provided a really good escape on prime-time TV with fellow Marvel offerings The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man (which also provided three European theatrical releases in Spider-Man, Spider-Man Strikes Back and Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge) also hitting pay-dirt – in fact, Lee has stated that he was also pleased with this version, which we’re inclined to agree with.
Peter Hooten gives a good performance as Strange - looking like a cross between Jason King and Magnum PI - and Benton reminds one of Jennifer O'Neill in Scanners - a classic example of a TV beauty from the decade in question. Co-star Clyde Kusatsu plays Wong, Lindmer's sidekick - and is a face some of you may remember from a short-lived adventure series from the early 1980s called Bring ‘em Back Alive, which starred Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan from TRON.
The new version of Doctor Strange purports to be bigger and more spectacular than this adaptation. Cumberbatch certainly has a lot to live up to and there is a hope that some of the charm prevalent in this TV film will be captured amidst the mega-budget pyrotechnics. It may not have the advancement in effects given the time period, but there is much heart within, thanks in part to John Mills, who proved his worth as a true acting legend in work like this.
DR. STRANGE (1978) / CERT: U / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: PHILIP DEGUERE JR. / STARRING: PETER HOOTEN, CLYDE KUSATSU, JESSICA WALTER, JOHN MILLS, EDDIE BENTON, ANNE-MARIE MARTIN, PHILIP STERLING / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 17TH