Dr. Strange

Synopsis:  Dr. Steven Strange, the Marvel Comics magician/superhero created in 1963 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, made his long-awaited screen debut in this 1978 TV pilot film. Peter Hooten plays Strange, while Sir John Mills portrays the doctor’s sorcerer shaman, “The Ancient One.” The Ancient One (whose real name is Lindmer) allows Strange access to the “Hermedic Arts,” which enables him to control the elements. In the pilot, Strange’s origin is retraced, then the story segues into a titanic battle between Strange and Camelot-era villainess Morgan LeFay (Jessica Walter), who has come back to life in order to collect human souls. Stan Lee reportedly disowned the video version of Dr. Strange, perhaps because one of his beloved characters was “camped up” for TV consumption.

Dr. Strange 6.75

Before I begin, let me make an admission that may shed light on my enjoyment of this TV movie: I always loathed Dr. Strange. As a kid, the very presence of Dr. Strange in a comic book made me recoil in horror. His storylines would always weird me out and it was FAR too esoteric for my tastes.

I only approached this TV movie out of curiosity, seeing as I have been watching all the Marvel superhero films I hadn’t seen before. I am a completist after all…

So, having very little love of the character, I was pretty much starting fresh when I watched this; the only thing I can remember of the character is his colourful get-up and his general appearance. It’s not much to go on, but it also meant that I wouldn’t be a stickler for details.

And, from the reviews I’ve read since, that’s a good thing: apparently, pretty much nothing remains of the original comics.

And yet, strangely enough (!), I’m not alone in actually kind of liking what I saw. Numerous reviews acknowledge its differences, but also decry the fact that there was only the one film – that it was a lost opportunity.

I wouldn’t go so far, but it is a middle-level quality piece, it wasn’t bad (something which is not always the case with these films – let alone the TV productions!). What really bogs the film down is its slow pacing, something which was standard procedure in that era anyway. It’s just such a contrast nowadays, what with our ADD culture.

Still, this origin story kind of works, in all of its abstract ways. The moment that you understand that this will be a movie about magic and alternate realities, it’s easier to accept that this film will not be action-filled – that it’s a slow cooker with infrequent (and relatively minor) boiling points.

But that’s also its strength: it creates a mood that I’ve rarely seen in these films.

Oh, look, it’s nothing to get truly exciting about. Hardly. Still, it reminds me of some of the more successful ‘70s chillers – but on television! It even boasts a score that would have been at home in a Dario Argento flick. In fact, the music was the high point of the piece.

As for the cast, they’re all okay. Our leading man tries to play the aloof womanizer type, but he’s not engaging enough for it to come across effectively; he’s pleasant, but bland. The leading lady is gorgeous (a show-stopper, actually!), but is handicapped by dream sequences which were probably the ‘70s equivalent of emoting to CGI; it’s not wholly convincing.

As a set-up for future adventures, ‘Dr. Strange’ works. It would have been interesting to see where they’d have taken it from there. Would they have retained this simmering pace and kept the mood as eerie as it is? It’s not actually scary, but it’s an unconventional tone for prime-time television – which, in turn, would also make it a breath of fresh air.

We will never know what would have come of it.

Not that I especially care (it is Dr. Strange, after all…), but my curiosity has been piqued. And, all things considered, I’d consider this some pretty mighty kudos to the people who put this together – even if the comic book purists probably tore their hair out over the end result.

What do you think?

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