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While Marvel's #DoctorStrange is casting a spell over the box office, let's not forget the caped conjurer's humble beginnings. It may look like we are reigniting the Golden Age of comic books on our screen, as #JessicaJones, #LukeCage, and #IronFist fill up our #Netflix queue — and in many ways we are — but it was the late '70s that saw superheroes truly dominate our telly box.
CBS became the unofficial home of The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man and two Captain Americas, and hoping to cash in on the success of another super-powered TV show, Stan Lee himself served as a consultant for a Doctor Strange series. The aim was to produce an extended pilot episode as a TV movie, then have a full series commissioned.
At this point, the character was still fairly new, having been created by Lee and Steve Ditko 15 years earlier, but unfortunately 1978 wasn't the year for the Master of the Magic Arts. You can make up your own opinons after watching the trailer below, but it looks like CBS could never quite pull the rabbit from the hat.
Whatever happened, it meant that it would take until the end of 2016 until we would see another live-action Doctor Strange. While Benedict Cumberbatch is currently casting his spell on the box office, it is time to look at exactly what went wrong with his predecessor's soirée into sorcery!
The Doctor is in the house.
It starred Peter Hooten as a curly-haired Matthew McConaughey, taking on the role of the bearded surgeon. He was clearly there to woo the female contingent, and just like Clooney in E.R., he made it more about the man than the medical. He swapped out the slick black hair for a more '70s look, and the levitating cloak for a long white jacket. If you are looking for Strange as The Sorcerer Supreme you better put this on fast forward x10.
As the film was firstly envisioned as a TV series, not much really happens: It takes a very long time for Strange to get his powers, and most of the 93-minute runtime goes to Hooten actually caring for his patients. There wasn't the budget for big car crashes, trips to Tibet, or the IMAX'd other realms of 2016, in fact there wasn't enough enough money for Steven Strange's proper title — he was demoted from neurosurgeon to psychiatrist.
Even the director Philip DeGuere himself seemed lost in it all. Flipping between whether it was a comic book outing or a procedural show, the powers were always a secondary. As for the *erm* unique costume, DeGuere said:
"I tried to keep as much to the comic costume as possible, but those tend to look silly on real people ... Actually, we ended up working with a model of a gentleman going to the opera. It’s the only instance in modern dress where a guy would wear a cape."
It is comments like this that show exactly why Dr. Strange was defined as a film of its time. People nowadays barely go to the opera, let alone be caught dead in a cape while going there.
Going under the knife.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that the film itself is not really to do with Strange at all. A young(er) Jessica Walter, aka Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development, played Morgan Le Fay — so at least they kept some of the comic book material in there. She is dispatched by a demon known as The Nameless One to kill the current Sorcerer Supreme. There is no whitewashing here, there is no mention of The Ancient One, and the current leader of the pack is Sir John Mills's Thomas Lindmer. There is also another familiar face when Wong pops up too.
Le Fay spends most of the film swooning over Strange in a way that seems odd today. There is a sexist undertone that this "woman" can't do her job because she is sexually attracted to Strange. He pretty much uses his manhood to save the day, and Le Fay refuses to kill him because he is so darn handsome. Perhaps Strange's power in this reality is that he is a love machine, hammered home by the awful line:
“I’m but a woman. A man attracted me.”
Something jars a little, and Walters's cold performance almost makes up for everyone else's hammy ones.
Then there is Eddie Benton as Clea Lake. As a long time love interest of Strange in the comic, you would expect there to be instantaneous sparks flying between the two, but alas their relationship is about as stiff as the bodies in the morgue. Perhaps the most annoying (but morbid) aspect of the film is that no one stays dead. Thrown off a bridge, lost in a coma, trapped in another realm, the film ends with everyone walking around like nothing has happened. It makes sense that they were pitching for a full series, but starting off as a TV movie was clearly not the way to take the franchise.
CBS decided not to turn he film into a series, and it is not hard to see why. A wobbly hospital set, cheap graphics, and a lackluster villain. Something that dogs them to this day, even in 1978 it looks like Marvel was facing a villain problem.
Sure, it may be a little amusing seeing Hooten as a Ron Burgundy/Magnum P.I., but watching it back, Dr. Strange is like watching a middle season episode of Grey's Anatomy where nothing happens, or the first two incorrect attempts where Dr. House tries to guess someone's ailment. However, do the above visuals (which look like they have been stolen from Doctor Who) make it into the 2016 version? Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that as Cumberbatch's Strange is hurled through multiple dimensions, we see a much-improved version of the same sequence from 1978. (Un)Fortunately this appeared to be Scott Derrickson's only homage to CBS's outing.
Having Walter's Le Fay fly around the set also set the vibe as a '70s version of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace — if you have never heard of that, save the two hours you'd spend watching this strange OG and watch a real messed up magic hospital instead. When we finally get to the alternate dimension hopping, it looks like they stole parts from Doctor Who. Bright colors you might find inside a water slide, accompanied by the sounds of a sitar — this was the '70s attempt at what Marvel is doing now.
All the blame can't be laid at the door of Strange though, the timing just wasn't right. Stan Lee claims that poor rating by putting Dr. Strange up against the show Roots was what caused it not to be green-lit, personally I just think people weren't ready for it. It is quite astounding that in the 36 years since the movie no one has tried again. In the naughties era of a million X-Men films, countless Batmen and Daredevil being resurrected twice, it is surprising that someone didn't levitate the cape once more.
It seems like a positive that were waiting for the right time. With the improvements in technology and advances in IMAX, there is no denying that 2016's Doctor Strange looks amazing on our screens. If you are going to do it, you might as well do it right. For the mean time let's do a Dr. Drake Ramoray and push the 1978 Strange down a lift shaft!