The Doctor Strange TV Movie You Probably Never Heard Of, Starring Arrested Development's Jessica Walter

Doctor Strange is now viewed as one of the A-list characters within the Marvel Comics universe. But just a handful of years before 2016's "Doctor Strange" movie, that wasn't always the case. The fact of the matter is that most people in the general public outside of comic book readers didn't really know who the Sorcerer Supreme was until director Scott Derrickson's film hit theaters. In the years since, the character appeared in "Thor: Ragnarok," "Avengers: Infinity War," "Avengers: Endgame," and "Spider-Man: No Way Home," providing a gigantic boost to his profile. Having Benedict Cumberbatch play the part certainly doesn't hurt matters either.

But a full 30 years before "Iron Man" would be released and kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe era as we know it, Stephen Strange made his way to the screen in the form of a TV movie in 1978 titled "Dr. Strange." The film has garnered a tiny bit of recognition recently as the folks at Shout! Factory recently made it available on Blu-ray for the first time. For various reasons, especially as we're on the eve of "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" hitting theaters, it is worth taking a look at this radically different adaptation of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's creation.

Philip DeGuere Jr. wrote and directed the film which originally aired on CBS and the idea was that, if it were successful, it could be used as a pilot for a TV show. Bear in mind that "The Incredible Hulk" had been a big success for Marvel at that time, so the idea wasn't farfetched by any means. Starring in the role of Stephen Strange would be Peter Hooten, of "Orca" fame, with none other than Jessica Walter, who modern audiences likely know from her roles in "Arrested Development" and "Archer," as the villain, Morgan LeFay.

The movie itself

It is not difficult to imagine that a relatively low-budget TV movie based on a sorcerer from a comic book was not adapted faithfully at this time. Honestly, it's a minor miracle that the MCU's Doctor Strange is so faithful to the source material. The movie takes many liberties but, just to get on the same page to start, here is the movie's official synopsis:

A modern hospital may seem worlds apart from the days of ancient sorcerers. But for psychiatrist Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten) and his patient Clea Lake (Eddie Benton), this is where those worlds collide... and the nightmare begins! Nothing Stephen Strange learned in medical school could prepare him for an attack by an evil sorceress from the 'fourth dimension,' Morgan le Fay (Jessica Walter), a villainess who plans an invasion of unimaginable evil on Earth. Chosen by an ancient guardian of the spirit world to learn the mystic arts to defeat Morgan and safeguard the Earth, Stephen Strange must take the place of the Earth's last sorcerer. Come along for a fantastic adventure into the 'fourth dimension' with ... Dr. Strange!

There is no Ancient One in this version of the story. Rather, Strange's predecessor is an old man named Lindmer. Strange, it's also worth pointing out, is not a surgeon and does not get in a terrible car accident leading him on a quest to discover sorcery. Rather, he is a psychiatrist, which changes the dynamic quite a bit. He also happens to be quite the lady's man, which plays into things later as Morgan ends up seducing him in the film. It's kind of a wild ride in some ways.

Essentially, Morgan has been trapped in the underworld for years and some ancient volcano-looking god tells her she needs to kill the current Sorcerer Supreme and his successor (Lindmer and Strange) or she is going to be stuck in the Underworld forever. Wong (Clyde Kusatsu), played by Benedict Wong in the MCU, is also present here but, sad to say, it's a far cry from the version audiences are familiar with. Though not as racist as the servant version of the character from the early comics, it's still not great.

Battles between Morgan and Strange take place (aside from the lovin') before, in the end, Strange saves the day and becomes the Sorcerer Supreme he's meant to be. It's an odd film and, to put it delicately, does not hold up to modern scrutiny. It feels comic book-y in the worst of ways, looks cheap, is mostly poorly acted, and did very little to inspire confidence in Marvel as a powerful media brand. Hence, it didn't get picked up to series beyond the single TV movie. It's truly a relic of its time.

Marvel before Blade

In the era we live in where the MCU films have made tens of billions of dollars at the box office, it is incredibly easy to forget that things weren't always this way. Marvel for most of its life had an incredibly difficult time breaking out in Hollywood. Aside from some hit animated shows, cinematic success and box office glory escaped the so-called house of ideas. Yet, Stan Lee always thought these characters can and should be reaching a wider audience through movies and TV shows.

1978's "Dr. Strange" represents just one of Lee's many attempts over the years to make that happen. But it wasn't until 1998 when "Blade" came out that Marvel actually ever had a certifiable hit that mattered. This was the true turning point. Though the tide would turn in an even more meaningful way just two years later with "X-Men," which was an even more mainstream success. The floodgates would be permanently opened two years after that with 2002's "Spider-Man," a true landmark moment in superhero cinema.

But the state of Marvel before 1998 was not one of success outside of the comics themselves, generally speaking. Other relics of the before times for Marvel include the 70s "Amazing Spider-Man" TV show, 1990's "Captain America" movie, and the never-released 1994 "Fantastic Four" film, just to name a few. "Dr. Strange" is truly representative of this era, for better or for worse.

We've come a long way

One of the most important lessons one can learn by looking back on "Dr. Strange," or other movies like it, is that we truly have come a long way. Even the worst superhero movies of the modern era, such as 2015's "Fantastic Four," aren't nearly as bad as they may seem on the surface when compared to some of the worst of the worst stuff released before Hollywood was forced to take superheroes seriously. 

That's not to say this film is the worst of the worst, because it's not, but where we are at now is leaps and bounds better in terms of overall quality. Even from what some might consider to be more middling Marvel films, such as "Eternals" or "Iron Man 2." We get Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange playing the part with full commitment and the special effects to back it up. We get multi-dimensional beasts, time-bending spells, and comics-accurate representation. It's better now for those who love this stuff and that's all there is to it.

"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" hits theaters on May 6, 2022.