Strange Visions: ComicsAlliance Reviews The 1978 Made-For-TV ‘Doctor Strange’ Movie
Doctor Strange is Marvel Studio's latest entry into its ever growing cinematic universe, and while Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofer fighting against the evil forces of Mads Mikkelsen is all well and good, can it really compare to 1978's made-for-TV Dr. Strange film?
Starring Peter Hooten as the titular Doctor Stephen Strange, and Arrested Development's Jessica Walter as Morgan LeFay, Dr. Strange was originally intended as a pilot for a television series similar to The Incredible Hulk. CBS passed on the series, so the pilot was aired as a one-off feature that is... certainly interesting, if nothing else.
Kieran Shiach: Okay, so we’re going to go through the film on the whole, but we’ve both just finished watching it, so let’s talk initial reactions…
This is a bad film.
Elle Collins: It very much is. It’s also very obviously a pilot for a TV show that never happened, probably because of how terrible the movie is. There are things I like about it, but I’m definitely not in a hurry to watch it again.
Kieran: Yeah, I think I’d have slightly better feelings about it if it was presented as the pilot for a TV show, but as a standalone film, it struggles under its origins, and not much happens over the course of ninety minutes.
Elle: It definitely has that ‘70s TV pacing. I mean, how many scenes are there in the middle that are just doctors and nurses disagreeing about giving Clea medication while she’s in the hospital? That was all the movie was about for a while there.
Kieran: I did quite like the '70s-as-heck intro, which seemed like The Wyatt Family’s signature sting, but slowed down to a normal speed.
Elle: I like how the movie starts with a title card that’s almost but not quite that famous Aldous Huxley quote that the Doors got their name from: “There’s the known, and the unknown, and in between… there’s a threshold? Possibly a barrier of some kind?”
Kieran: So we start with the true star of the film, Jessica “Lucille 1” Walter as Morgan LeFay, and her demon boss, which seems to be a Godzilla suit obscured by as many smoke effects as they can afford, which isn’t many smoke effects, I’m afraid to say. I was hoping it wasn’t going to be an origin film, but it turns out that’s all it is.
Elle: Obviously we’re not watching the most high-definition copy of this film, and when the big boss demon first shows up and he basically looked like a glowing pink cloud with eyes showing through, I thought he had to be Dormammu. And a recognizable Dormammu, if not a well-realized one. But later his form is clearer, and he’s definitely some kind of kaiju. As far as comic book Doctor Strange villains go though, I’d say he’s closer to Dormammu than anyone else.
Kieran: Yeah, I wasn’t sure how much of it was poor lighting and how much of it was a bad rip of the film, but the scenes in hell(?) are especially hard to make out. There’s also a scene later where Stephen Strange is wearing a tactleneck in a dark room, and it looks like his head is floating around on its own, which is just one of many hilarious moments.
I also wanna talk a little bit about Strange’s general presentation, which could be charitably described as “Selleck af.” At the start of the film, I thought he didn’t look like Doctor Strange, but by the end of it I did kinda buy him as the comics character.
I was, however, surprised by Strange’s personality, because unlike the comics, he actually goes out of his way to be compassionate to his patients. He came across as a less-charming Hawkeye Pierce.
Elle: Peter Hooten is a very ‘70s Doctor Strange, with all that volume to his hair. He seems like a basically okay guy though, which is actually a little disappointing? Part of what makes Strange interesting is that he was this egotist whose perfect life got ruined, and that led him on the path to becoming Sorcerer Supreme. Here he just inherited a ring from his dad and the elder sorcerer (who is not the Ancient One) goes to the trouble of finding him.
I get that this movie doesn’t have the budget to show a trek through snowy mountains to a hidden temple, but this origin is a lot less interesting.
Kieran: You know who my favorite character in this is? Wong. I thought Wong was awesome every time he was on screen, and it’s kinda bull that he spends years studying under his master only for Strange to get the job based on family connections. It’s like the movie is commentating on a lot of stuff inadvertently
Elle: Yeah, Wong is great here. His three-piece suits are definitely preferable to his robes from the comics, and even beyond that he felt more like a modern man of 1978. There were also some scenes where he seemed a lot like the older sorcerer’s husband. Particularly the part where they were having an emotional discussion while Wong cooks him breakfast.
Kieran: It’s like there’s a more interesting film here, if only Strange would get out of the way!
So, Morgan LeFay can’t attack Lindmere (The Old Man, as he’s often addressed) directly, so she possess a student named Clea, and has her chuck him over a bridge. He’s fine though, pretty much, but it messes Clea up considerably. What did you think of the treatment of Clea here, and the use of that name?
Elle: I was mostly just amused by the use of the name. It’s very much in the spirit of older comics adaptations (and some of the newer ones) to say, “This is Strange’s love interest’s name, so we’ll use it even though we’ve kept nothing of that character.”
But I definitely didn’t care for the movie’s treatment of this Clea at all. She basically just gets batted back and forth by the other characters as a weapon or a pawn, and Stephen treats her for trauma, then hits on her, then hits on her again after her memory’s been wiped. It’s… not great.
She is at the center of my favorite scene of the movie, though. Which is her first appearance, when Morgan LeFay is intensely stalking her across campus, making eyes at her. It’s like a little bit of Vampyros Lesbos transposed into this much less interesting movie.
In general, the moments of Clea having visions of LeFay are pretty effective, compared to a lot of what goes on in this movie.
Kieran: Strange is shown to have some kind of connection to Clea --- who I thought was called Claire for half the film --- and Lindmere shows up at the hospital to set Strange on his path towards being a magic man. Meanwhile, Clea has had her memory wiped, and everyone in the hospital wants to pump her full of drugs, except Stephen, but she gets drugged anyway and goes into a coma.
Elle: This movie is weirdly nonchalant about the prospect of admitting someone to psychiatric care. As opposed to, for example, Candyman, where hospitalization becomes part of the horror, here it’s just incidental. Which I guess gets back to this movie having no interest in Clea as a person with agency.
Kieran: So Strange has to work with Lindmere to access the “Higher Plane” of the Astral Realm to rescue Clea from Hell(?) and like I said earlier, it’s hard to tell what’s going on the entire time in Hell(?). I did like that the “Lower Plane” of the Astral Realm is dreams. It’s a small touch, but it adds a layer of world-building to the universe.
Elle: Yeah, I thought that was cool too. And I got excited when Strange finally goes to the Astral Plane, but then nothing really happens there.
Kieran: A hallmark of this film is that everything goes on too long, and the Doctor Who opening credits scene of Strange falling into the Astral Realm lasts forever.
Morgan LeFay sends some sort of demon after Strange, but he gets away somehow --- like I said, bad lighting. Godzilla Dormammu is mad at Morgan for this, and then she reveals that she’s not been giving it her all because she’s got a big ol’ crush on Strange.
Elle: That demon with the black armor is a real problem in the inky blackness of the Astral Plane, and the low-res video transfer doesn’t help either.
Morgan LeFay is probably my favorite part of this movie, mostly by virtue of being Jessica Walter and having fabulous outfits. But I thought it was super-weird that they made a thing out of her attraction to Strange when that hadn’t really been something we’d seen up to that point. And I don’t care for Godzilla Dormammu’s threat of making her old. For a radioactive kaiju from Hell, he seems to have some sexist ideas if you ask me.
Kieran: Oh, it’s worse than that. He doesn’t just threaten to make her old. He threatens to make her old and barren, because we know women can’t feel true contentment until they’re a mother.
Elle: Aw man, that is worse. And by the way, I’m skipping ahead a bit, but did we get any idea of how LeFay regains her youth and comes back to Earth at the end of the movie? It felt like a very tacked-on “maybe we can get Jessica Walter to be a regular on the TV show CBS is totally going to give us” moment.
Kieran: Yeah, that’s exactly what that felt like, but I liked the setup of Morgan LeFay as a new-age cult leader offering answers to disenfranchised youths looking for answers. That’s a genuinely interesting status quo for the character that would get me interested in her in the comics.
Elle: So some other stuff happens, and I’m trying to remember in what order. Morgan LeFay turns into a cat a couple of times, which leads to an actually pretty spooky moment where Wong sees the cat sort of rising up/growing (bad lighting) and then suddenly it’s her. And then they have a magic fight with colorful beams of animation.
Then Lindmere gets captured by a demon, and Strange has to go back to the Astral Plane to save him, but Morgan tempts him with power, riches, and really cool clothes.
Kieran: This is the best 1970s Doctor Strange costume we were likely to get, but don’t get used to it, because it lasts about ten minutes.
I was worried that Wong was killed, and it’s never fully addressed until he just shows up alive at the end. Morgan tries to get him to take off his magic ring while they make out, but he refuses, so she traps him, but he manages to break out fairly easily and the climactic fight of the film is over in seconds.
Elle: “Climactic” is an awfully strong word there, to be honest. Basically nothing happens, which somehow amounts to Strange saving the day, which means he becomes the new Sorcerer Supreme and gets a different costume. And wow, is that costume terrible. Even for a made-for-TV movie in 1978, it’s rough.
Kieran: We do get confirmation that The Ancient One does exist, through the form of a big booming voice, as he transfers power from Lindmere to Strange. There’s essentially a post-credits sequence with LeFay, which we covered earlier, and the movie ends with Strange slyly helping a street magician conjure a dove. Then there’s a freeze frame as Strange’s face changes to a drawing on parchment and the credits roll.
Elle: I thought the scene with the magician was a kind of clever way to show that Strange is powerful now, but it was also really funny, because all he did was make a dove appear when the magician was expecting flowers. Then the whole audience reacts like the magician has done something truly amazing. Except that regular non-magical magicians make doves appear all the time. It’s like the number one thing they do, after card tricks.
Kieran: And that’s Doctor Strange 1978! It could have been worse, but I hope I never have to sit through it again.
Elle: I think I hated this movie less than you did --- I have a soft spot for weird stuff from the ‘70s --- but I definitely didn’t love it. It’s interesting to imagine what the TV series would have been like from week to week, although I doubt that would have been much better that this.
Still, watching thirtysomething Jessica Walter strut around in ‘70s clothes, making witch-faces at people, is something I can’t rule out wanting to do again.