Back in 1978, Marvel, fresh from the success of the Incredible Hulk and Amazing Spider-Man TV shows, was looking for its next hero to be immortalised on the small screen. Rather than go with one of its more popular heroes, like Thor or Iron Man, Marvel went with the decidedly left field choice of master of the mystic arts, Doctor Stephen Strange. Co-created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the 1960s, the wonderfully moustached Dr Strange got into various colourful, otherworldly scrapes in his adventures as Earth’s primary protector against magical and mystic threats. Though the comic had many followers, enchanted by its well-constructed, cohesive cosmology that featured nods to Eastern mysticism, Egyptian myths and all manner of weird and wonderful occult doctrines, it must have seemed like a big ask for the show’s creators to successfully translate the good doctor’s epically arcane exploits to the television screen.
Stepping up to this seemingly thankless task, writer/director Philip DeGuere takes the smart approach of grounding the doctor’s adventures in reality, de-emphasising some of the more flamboyant aspects of the comic book to create a more credible, believable world. That’s not to say that Doctor Strange’s universe is a dull place – far from it. With the aid of some impressive, spooky sets filled with fusty old antiques and gloomy, stylish, highly atmospheric lighting, Deguere’s take on the Marvel Universe casts a bewitching spell.
Into this creepy world swaggers the impressively manly Peter Hooten as charming psychologist Dr Stephen Strange. Hooten’s take on the character is hugely enjoyable, keeping things the right side of camp, presenting him as a hairy, burly rogue who rolls into work late with lipstick on his cheek and reeking of cheap perfume. Remarking that the perfume’s only cheap “because I gave it to her!”, Hooten’s doctor is unmistakeably a man’s man, a cocky Ron Burgundy in scrubs. Unbeknownst to him, Stephen’s world is about to be turned upside down by an encounter with John Mills’ mysterious stranger Thomas Lindmer, and the revelation that his enchanted ring, passed down to him by his father, makes him heir to the soon-to-be-vacant position of Sorceror Supreme.
Doctor Strange is a decent enough little fantasy-thriller, wisely not relying too much on special effects, focusing more on plot, character and performance. The effects budget seems to have largely been splurged on scenes set in the astral plane, which aren’t bad, all dark shadows and wild, fluorescent lighting, resembling the freaky, kaleidoscopic, lava-lamp wet dreams of Deep Purple. Opening scenes, set in some mysterious, doomful, but confidently realised parallel dimension, introduce us to our chief villainess, the gorgeous, deadly sorceress Morgan, portrayed by a young Jessica Walter (Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development!). Morgan receives orders from a frightening, barely glimpsed, fiery-eyed demonic master who orders her to carry out some vile deeds that involve the possession of a young woman named Clea (Eddie Benton).
The effects for Morgan’s dark overlord appear quite crude and clunky, but DeGuere is clever enough to never let us get a good look at the creature. We never really see much of anything in Doctor Strange, cleverly making us rely on our own imagination to fill in the gaps. As we have already seen, the paltry budgets afforded to many of Marvel’s live action efforts have proven to be their undoing, with directors suffering the quandary of having to work out how to bring these fantastic characters to life with little financial backing. Amazingly, DeGuere seems to have cracked it, so it seems a monumental shame that he wasn’t given the chance to do more.
Much of the pilot’s creepy mood is achieved through smart use of sound. For most of the show, Morgan doesn’t do much, save for standing around and looking menacing, but her ominous, insistent, funky guitar theme tune proves irresistible, letting us know that in no uncertain terms, this bitch is up to something. When Morgan clashes with Lindmer, though very little is seen, canny use of camera angles and sound effects imply that a monumental battle of invisible necromancy is going down. This is how you show magic with no money – DeGuere keeps things grounded and almost believable, crafting a superior, sombre, chilling mood piece.
The show’s main failing is that it takes forever to get where it’s going, with Stephen only finally assuming the mantle of Sorceror Supreme during its final, giddy act. Much of the plot is taken up with Stephen’s dealings with Clea, who becomes his patient. The doc suspects the girl is crazy, yet he recognises her from his dreams and totally fancies her, and so begins a slow-burning fantasy thriller that plods along at a frustratingly phlegmatic pace. The reluctant doctor takes an age to finally come round to the side of the angels, following a dalliance with the dark side where he spurns the wicked Morgan’s advances, but is spared because – oh yes – she can’t resist his rugged, beefy animal magnetism. Marvel fans would need to wait over three decades for the arrival of Thor to meet a movie hero quite so triumphantly and unapologetically sexy.
Ultimately, Doctor Strange is a mildly enchanting parable about accepting one’s destiny that explores some interesting themes. Straight-thinking psychiatrist Stephen starts out believing that evil is but a construct of the human mind, yet his adventures lead him to question everything he knows. Though he winds up looking ridiculous in the hellish bracelets, medallions and tunic that constitute his new costume, the pilot lays a lot of good groundwork and sets things up nicely for a regular weekly series. As the doctor’s comic book exploits have demonstrated, there is an infinite universe of kooky, spellbinding, supernatural possibilities to be explored.
Unfortunately, the pilot aired opposite all-conquering mini-series Roots and so was largely ignored. Rumours abound that Marvel are planning a new Doctor Strange movie as part of ‘Phase Three’ of their mega-successful Avengers movie universe. In the search for inspiration they could do much worse than to revisit this quaint, titillating, forgotten slice of TV magic.