The Original ‘Doctor Strange’: Marvel’s Phase Zero

❉ Benedict who? Take a voyage to Trip Out City with the late 1970s incarnation of Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme.

As the celluloid Juggernaut of the Marvel Comics Cinematic Universe continues to carve a laser-like swathe through the global box office during Phase Three of its unlimited life cycle, the latest of Stan Lee’s pantheon of super-powered heroes to rise to the franchise is the Sorcerer Supreme Dr Stephen Strange in the form of Sherlock himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, in ‘Doctor Strange’ (Scott Derrickson, 2016).

His of course is not the first incarnation of the character, as the late 1970s saw a brief but bountiful blooming of superheroes on US television.  After the syndicated success of the George Reeves-starring ‘The Adventures of Superman’ from 1952 to 1958, and the ABC network’s creation of a camptastic classic in the form of Adam West’s caped crusader ‘Batman’ (1966-1968) and their success with the full 1976-’77 season of ‘Wonder Woman’ with Lynda Carter (The second time a charm, after the failed pilot movie starring the blonde Kathy Lee Crosby in 1974), the CBS network wanted in on the obvious audience for comic book capers.

CBS had first picked up ‘Wonder Woman’ after ABC dropped it after its debut season – its 1940s WWII setting being deemed cost prohibitive for a weekly series – and reformatted it so that Diana Prince’s Amazonian exploits took place in the more budget-friendly present day of the 1970s.  Next, the network secured a deal with Marvel to bring a number of their properties to the small screen, in what I like to call the MCU’s ‘Phase Zero’: wherein Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno were the iconic Dr Banner and green goliath in ‘The Incredible Hulk’, Nicholas Hammond (child star of Robert Wise’s 1965 classic ‘The Sound of Music’) scaled skyscrapers as the spectacular Spider-Man, and ex-footballer and later star of Antonio Margheriti’s 1983 cinematic triumph ‘Yor, the Hunter from the Future’ Reb Brown threw his ‘mighty’ perspex shield as Captain America.  It was into this CBS televisual superheroic arena that Peter Hooten was to stride, cloak a-swirling, as Dr Strange.

Opening with a red-on-black text prologue that prefigures Russell Mulcahy’s 1986 action fantasy ‘Highlander’, the film sets out its mythology a place beyond our own mortal dimension, past the “barrier that separates the known from the unknown” (and possibly the known knowns from the unknown knowns, to quote Donald Rumsfeld’s cthonic chant to his own lizard gods), where the forces of good and evil engage upon a mystical battleground in eternal conflict.  We are introduced to this no-time neverwhen of an Otherword via a brief tracking shot through a starfield – strangely reminiscent to the famed opening titles of Richard Donner’s epic ‘Superman’ of later the same year – where we meet the eternal and evil sorceress Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter, ‘Play Misty for Me’ [Clint Eastwood, 1971], ‘Tapeheads’ [Bill Fishman, 1988], and the unmistakable voices of Fran Sinclair in ‘Dinosaurs’ [1991-1994] and Malory Archer in superlative spy satire ‘Archer’ [2009-2016]).  Arthur’s bane has been summoned before a distaff Dormammu in the unearthly and inhuman form of the Nameless One; effectively realised on the meagre telemovie budget via a stop motion animated puppet seen through a misty red haze and voiced by actor David Hooks, this ancient alien Antichrist has decided to deploy Morgan in his ongoing feud with the Earthly plane’s protector, the Sorceror Supreme – or to strike againt his successor as substitute.

In the role of said sorceror, Thomas Lindmer, is screen legend John Mills (of countless iconic filmic landmarks, but among them David Lean’s ‘This Happy Breed’ [1944] and ‘Great Expectations’ [1946], Charles Frend’s 1948 biopic ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ and J. Lee Thompson’s ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ [1958] – and a year later to portray another legendary character of cultdom in Nigel Kneale’s franchise-closing ‘Quatermass’ [Piers Haggard, 1979]) – portraying a different take on Marvel’s wise Tibetan sage and mentor the Ancient One (though perhaps, given the recent movie version’s gender switch of casting the wonderful Tilda Swinton in the same role,  it’s the character’s position and plot function that are of importance rather than a 100% accurate on-screen transliteration).  The venerable knighted thespian gives a good performance as the weary centuries-old wizard, knowing that his time on this mortal plane is coming to an end and that he must soon pass on his mantle as mankind’s magician to his designated heir apparent but also knowing that his final conflict with Morgan (“The Enchantress.  Queen of the Sorcerors.  The Dark Queen”, as he names her to his trusted assistant Wong [Clyde Kusatsu]) will soon take place.

Morgan’s move in her ages-old battle with Lindmer is to utilise as an unknowing pawn the beautiful and amusingly-monikered student Clea Lake (played by Eddie Benton – a.k.a. Anne-Marie Martin) whom she stalks through the streets of New York in a sequence that’s almost entirely unlike, and yet reminscent of, the scenes of Chris MacNeil walking to the strains of Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ in ‘The Exorcist’ (William Friedkin, 1973) – Paul Chihara’s insistent Seventies bassline lending a similar sinister magical realism to the innoccuous urban environments.  When Lindmer confronts his undying mystical nemesis atop a bridge with a telepathic Tolkeinesque “You shall not pass me, Morgan!”, the ailing alchemist finds himself hurled from the bridge to the road below by Clea – momentarily possessed by his foul faerie foe.  After this the latently psychic Ms Lake finds herself troubled by recurring nightmares of the witch and the unearthly realms (“She’s in danger – grave danger.  A psychic assault of those dimensions isn’t easily recovered from” as a recuperating Lindmer tells Wong) in a hallucinatory passage of nightmares and dreamscapes reminiscent of contemporaneous horror films of the late ’70s and early ’80s (fitting, perhaps, given Benton’s small role in Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 slasher sequel ‘Halloween II’), that results in her staggering deliriously into oncoming nighttime traffic and telling the baffled nurses at the hospital to which she is resultantly brought that she needs to stay awake and is terrified of being made to go to sleep.

All of this, and the fact that she’s an attractive young woman, brings her to the attention of New York State’s resident whizzkid physician, psychiatrist and bird-dog love rat Dr Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten, ‘Orca: The Killer Whale’ [Michael Anderson, 1977] and Endo Castellari’s original 1978 Tarantino unoriginal thievery homage fodder ‘The Inglorious Bastards’).  Bearing a good physical resemblance to the comic character, Hooten is well cast in embodying the less than superheroic but all-too-human side of Dr Strange as the surprisingly grown up script clearly signals his strings of No-Strings ‘consummate and cast aside’ dalliances with the nursing staff and his slightly prurient over-eager interest in his vulnerable patient.  Clea’s predicament brings both Strange and Lindmer (Mills Jedi Mind Tricking his way, Alec Guinness style, into the hospital outside of visiting hours) into her orbit, and Lindmer soon recruits the younger man – who finds to his astonishment that he has been sharing the same nightmares as his pulchritudinous patient, and being told by Lindmer that he at least shares a psychic link with her if not the physical one that he has in mind – by informing him that he has the answers to both Clea’s and his problems

Strange finds himself at Lindmer’s home – noting that the slightly Amityville-esque attic window bears a mystical symbol exactly corresponding the seal on the ring he inherited from his late parents and has worn since their deaths – and is informed that the aged sage was close friends with his deceased antecedents, and that their death in a car crash whilst Strange was of a young age was a close call engineered by the forces of evil to take him out and prevent his initiation as the next Sorceror Supreme.

This is a lot to take in of course, and yet Stephen finds himself agreeing to pass the void beyond the mind to take a couple of astral weeks to search for Clea’s nether-essence (steady!), with only the spell “In the name of Rael, scourge of demons, i command you – begone!” as protection from the Elder Things that inhabit the dark places of the inside (and there I thought that Rael was a character from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but we learn you see).  Strange then lives up to his name by experiencing what can only be described as a voyage to Trip Out City via an oddly familiar slit-screen title sequence (very much more Tom Baker ‘Doctor Who’ than ‘2001’ in its realisation) into a psychedelic and psychotronic realisation of the spirit plane, replete with double exposures and coloured lighting gels that would make Mario Bava envious, in order to retrieve Clea’s soul from the hellspawn dread demons of darkness, and yet even after this redemptive spiritual journey he still finds himself sceptical of the supernatural forces that surround him.  “Wong, you’re an intelligent man – surely you don’t believe all this?” he enjoins the magician’s faithful retainer.  “It’s not a question of belief,” he responds.  “I could believe that it’s not raining outside and leave my umbrella in the closet – but that won’t help me from getting wet” – and so Stephen Strange finds his consciousness opened to outside forces (how appropriate for the psychedelic period).

As Strange finally accepts his place as the new Sorcerer Supreme and “Guardian of the Light” (replete with nifty new cloak and costume), he receives the inherited wisdom of the dying Lindmer and all previous holders of his exalted position – including the disembodied voice of Michael Ansara as a previous Ancient One – he finds himself “More than a man” in the wise words of Wong, and inheritor of great powers to call things from the vasty deep, a nice house and an Asian butler.  So, for a terrible doctor, the guy’s got those things going for him.

We end with the good Doctor possibly abusing his newly found great abilities by playing a juvenile trick on a street magician who i found annoyingly familiar – until i found that he was played by Larry Anderson, and had therefore haunted my youth as both the pre-facial wounding Michael Knight (nee Long) in the ‘Knight Rider’ pilot, and Peter Parker’s co-lab worker in the 1977 ‘Spider-Man’ pilot.  Aside from that colossal misuse of important cosmic powers, this pilot film ends promisingly like the water and berries of Tantalus with the whisper of a sigh of a series never made.  It could have been good.  It could have been one of  the cornerstones of Marvel’s Year Zero roll-out strategy.  But like so many things that coulda, woulda, shoulda been – it wasn’t.  Perhaps in the dreams of some other-realm, where demons drift and mountains shift, it happened.  But it couldn’t happen here.


❉ ‘Dr Strange’ was issued (finally) by Universal on DVD in October 2016 – I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the Cumberbatch version, and / or anyone interested in cult fantasy film.

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