In 1978, CBS made a TV movie for one of my favorite comic books -- Dr. Strange. It was supposed to serve as a pilot for an eventual series but failed miserably, airing opposite the legendary miniseries Roots. By many accounts, this adaptation is considered one of the most laughably bad failures in superhero history. Even this very website said it was "awful" and compared it to the unreleased Fantastic Four movie. That's understandable, considering that lead actor Peter Wooten looks like a cross between Mr. Brady and '70s porn star John Holmes.
But I don't always agree with Cracked.com. Indeed, I still can't believe we're using that name instead of my proposed suggestion: "GladstoneAndHisLessFunnyProfessionalAcquaintances.com." Also, the comic book's creator, Stan Lee, doesn't really agree with that description either, having this to say about the show: "I probably had the most input on that one. I've become good friends with the writer/producer Phil DeGuere. I was pleased with Dr. Strange."
So the other day, I went to YouTube and watched the show myself. Was it an amazing experience? No. Could you find things to mock? Hell yes. Was it a terrible adaptation? Well, given the difficulty of the hero, the limitations of special effects, and the nature of '70s television, I have to say "NO!" It's really not bad at all. The show has many flaws, but for most of it, it made a lot of good decisions and is a far more earnest and accurate attempt at something workable than many other adaptations. Here is my five-point defense of Dr. Strange.
The first rule of comic book adaptation is fulfilling people's basic desires. Everyone but the most petulant Comic Con infant understands that some changes need to be made when adapting comics to a new medium. Some things, however, are essential. For example, try to picture Spider-Man without a mean-spirited J. Jonah Jameson. Why would you? He's a vital part of the story, and there's no reason that can't be captured perfectly on film ... if you're J.K. Simmons directed by Sam Raimi.
But when they made Spider-Man into a TV show far worse than Dr. Strange, the role of J. Jonah Jameson was portrayed by someone who seemed too busy dying of congestive heart failure to muster much emotion:
"Parker! ... Oh, never mind. I'm taking a nap."
For the most part, Dr. Strange avoids these problems. First off, his name is Dr. Stephen Strange. Unlike the TV version of the Hulk, these producers did not feel the inexplicable desire to change the character's first name. Secondly, he's still a doctor. And even though it's clearly shot on awful LA sound stages, the show still purportedly takes place in New York City.
More importantly, however, if you're a fan of Dr. Strange, you want to see this:
Weird astral plane stuff and zappin' hands.
And although this is a low-budget '70s show, the producers knew they had to deliver that, and they did.
Weird astral plane stuff and zappin' hands.
The Dr. Strange movie features him traveling via his astral plane form, battling some almost godlike enemies, and having zaptastic battles. Is all of that covered in '70s folly? Yes it is, but I don't know, man, it was the '70s. At least the people doing the adaptation knew they had to do that, unlike let's say producer Jon Peters, who purportedly wanted to do a Superman movie where Superman couldn't fly.
OK, minor point, but I really like the wonderfully awful soundtrack. It's like Beverly Hills Cop's "Axel F" (five years before "Axel F") meets some prog rock wankery. And that's as it should be. Prog rock nerds are the perfect audience for Dr. Strange (jump to 1:24).
Is everything about the Dr. Strange adaptation good? No. An awful lot of it sucks, but in its defense, it's mostly the same stuff that sucked in just about every '70s non-sitcom TV show. The dialogue is wooden, the sets are cheap, the special effects are unconvincing, the whole lot. But go watch Kojak, Baretta, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, CHiPs, Emergency! ... that is what TV looked like then, and Dr. Strange had to live in that universe. Hating Dr. Strange because of Peter Wooten's '70s perm would be like writing off Star Trek because of Lt. Uhuru's '60s go-go boots.
This just gave me a great Rule 34 idea ...
There is one '70s influence in this movie that is wholly unnecessary, and I love it and loathe it equally. Y'see, in the comic, Dr. Strange goes on a quest in the Himalayas and trains in sorcery with an ancient mystic. That's not here. Instead, they create a mentor for him right in New York City. And because this show came out only a year after Star Wars, I guess everyone thought it made sense to cast an aging, venerable Brit as his Jedi master -- I mean, instructor in the mystic arts. John Mills is his master, and they're not shy about the comparison to Obi-Wan. First off, John Mills and Sir Alec Guinness starred opposite each other in the 1946 film version of Great Expectations.
How do you like that for a neat bit of trivia, mofos?
But more importantly, the Dr. Strange master literally does the Jedi mind trick (jump to 5:30):
I love Arrested Development, and my favorite part of Arrested Development is Jessica Walter. In arguably the best written, best acted comedy of all time, I put her performance at the top of the heap. And she's in Dr. Strange as his archnemesis, Morgan LeFay. And guess what else? She's young and hot.
"YOU'RE A HOT JESS!"
Guess what else? After watching Dr. Strange, I realized that I missed a joke in Season 4 of Arrested Development where it's suggested that Morgan LeFay should be the villain in the musical production of Fantastic Four -- a production Jessica Walter auditions for. Does she do anything particularly memorable in this movie? No, but she's pretty evil and you want to have sex with her. That is exactly what the role requires. Jessica Walter FTW.
Even when the show messes up, it sorta gets things right. First off, the over-the-top opening credits make clear that this is a high-stakes show. Dr. Strange doesn't foil bank robberies like TV Spider-Man or help battered children confront their abusive dads like TV Hulk. He is battling the very forces of evil. That's probably why it can't be a successful TV show in the '70s. The only doctor from that decade who could pull it off is the one from Doctor Who, and that wouldn't work on American prime time then.
So what did they change? Well, in the comic, Dr. Strange is an arrogant, selfish surgeon who loses his skill after an accident and turns to alcohol. After losing everything, he goes on a pilgrimage and studies with an ancient mystic who imparts wisdom to him through training and study. Only then does he care for humanity and seek redemption by doing battle with evil. Too much for TV. Instead, they did give him a love for humanity, but made him a bit of a womanizer, arrogant, and someone who did not believe in the existence of pure evil. Accordingly, his character still has growth by ultimately accepting his position as a defender of humanity and recognizing that there are powers greater than he.
Also, in this version, rather than going to the Himalayas and studying with a mystic for years, he kind of just gets in a mojo transfer machine. That's pretty stupid, but (jump to 7:30) ...
... it's not so bad because the audience then learns that while Strange has obtained additional powers, he still needs study before he can learn how best to use them.
Look, is Dr. Strange a quality show? No. But I get why Stan Lee didn't hate it. They made a lot of decent choices, and most of what sucks about it is defined by the limited budget and taste of a mass-marketed '70s television movie. Or maybe I just have a soft spot for '70s porn staches.
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