Julien Neaves, Editor
Dr Strange has been one busy sorcerer lately. Not only did he have the best episode of MCU animated anthology series What If…? (if you haven’t see it, you really should check it out) and guest star in the massively popular Spider-Man: No Way Home, but the hype train for his sophomore film Multiverse of Madness, scheduled for release on May 6, is officially off the rails. So I thought this would be the perfect time to travel back to the live action debut of the mustachioed master of the mystic arts.
And no, I’m not talking about his 2016 MCU origin film, as fun an outing as that was. No, I’m going way back. Back into time. Back to 1978. This was the year of Space Invaders, the first test tube baby, Dominica gaining independence, the tragedy of Jonestown, and John Travolta dancing his way into viewers’ hearts with both Grease and Saturday Night Fever. It was also the year of the Dr Strange television movie, an attempted tv pilot that never went to series. After hearing about the film for years curiosity got the better of me and I checked it out. And you know what? It’s by no means a great movie, but it’s also not the worst thing ever. With a magical SPOILER ALERT let’s teleport into it!
Let’s talk about the plot. When evil sorceress Morgan le Fay is charged by an evil entity of the “fourth dimension” to destroy an ancient wizard called the Sorcerer Supreme, the wizard must pass his abilities onto a disbelieving doctor. Now people familiar with Dr Strange’s comic book origins would know that something sounds off here. In the comics Stephen Strange is an egotistical surgeon who loses the ability to operate after a car crash damages his hands beyond repair. In his search for healing he encounters the Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme, and becomes his student and eventually a master of the mystical and martial arts. The TV movie flips the script and has the Sorcerer Supreme (he’s never referred to as the Ancient One) seeking out Strange. And the goodly doctor experiences no terrible accident. Also this version of Stephen Strange is a psychiatrist and not a surgeon.
The cast is easily the film’s strongest asset. Easily the best of the bunch is the late great Jessica Walter (who played a psycho in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me but would be more recongisable to modern audiences as matriarch Lucille Bluth in sitcom Arrested Development or as the voice of Malory Archer on adult animated series Archer) as Morgan Le Fay. She plays the sultry villainess with the necessary level of cheese, which is a truck load. She is a lot of fun to watch and delightfully wicked. In one scene after possessing student and Strange love interest Clea Lake and throwing the Sorcerer Supreme off a bridge she gleefully asks Clea, “Is he dead?” Gotta love her.
Peter Hooten makes for a decent Dr Strange. When we first meet him he is a bit of a lothario but still a likeable guy who cares for his patients. We actually don’t get much of him as a sorcerer (we’ll get into that later) but there is potential there. Rounding off the cast, John Mills does a great job as the mysterious Thomas Lindmer/Sorcerer Supreme, the very recognisable tv actor Clyde Kusatsu is a capable Wong (the sorcerer’s assistant), and Anne-Marie Martin as Clea is a lovely damsel in distress.
Moving on to the music, it’s a mixed bag. Some of it is jarring, like funky music during a “tense” chase scene. But Morgan le Fay’s synth theme is quite the banger. The special effects are about what you would expect for the time, including a psychedelic scene of Strange entering the astral plane. I thought the decision to have the evil entity’s mouth move was not a good one, though, as it makes it look more like a Muppet than a menace. The costume on the demon Balzaroth looks cool though. Strange’s first costume (the one in the main picture) is not comic accurate but it still works. His second purple and yellow costume (see below) just looks ridiculous though. It wasn’t broke so they shouldn’t have “fixed” it.
The film’s main issue is in its story. The plot point of Morgan seeking to destroy the Sorcerer Supreme is entertaining and her assault on the Sanctum Santorum one of the better scenes. But sadly we get very little of the magical aspect. Heck, Strange only gets to do anything magical in the final act and even then it’s not much. It is clear that it’s a tv pilot because they spend so much time either stretching things out or setting up things for the show (that never came). We get a lot of Strange at the hospital with dull side characters who I presume would have returned for the series. Clea being haunted by Morgan goes on forever. Morgan inexplicably falls for Strange, which explains her weak sauce attempt to off him by having a boy on a bicycle crash into him. And then the romance between Strange and Clea goes through some kind of time loop and they end up repeating their initial courtship practically word for word. Lot of wheel spinning here.
And while the film appears to give some kind of resolution with the evil entity cursing Morgan to assume her true, wizened form, this is immediately undone when we see her in our dimension pretending to be a self-help guru and targeting young people. That actually would have made for a more interesting story than what we got, but I guess they were saving it for Episode 1 of the series. And we all know how that went.
So is Dr Strange 1978 worth watching other than for the nostalgia factor or your film completionist? Well, if you want to see Jessica Walter ham it up as a sexy sorceress to a rocking theme, then yes. Other than that, this film is unlikely to cast any spell on you.
Editor Jules’s Score: 5 out of 10
So have you seen Dr Strange 1978? What did you think of it? And you can check out more retro superhero content below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.