You might think that the superhero boom is a fairly recent trend in Hollywood, but the truth is that a similar spandex-clad revolution happened in movies and on TV back in the 1970s. This was a time when the Hulk, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel were all gracing television sets nationwide, while Superman was taking flight on the big screen. But in 1978, those heroes almost had a bit more company when CBS took a gamble on a pilot movie for a potential Dr. Strange television series.
Doctor Strange (spelled Dr. for TV) first appeared in the appropriately titled Marvel comic Strange Tales #110 in 1963, the product of creators Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, who had worked together the previous year to bring Spider-Man to life. Since the beginning, Strange was portrayed as a brilliant but cocky surgeon, who, after suffering career-ending injuries to his hands in a car accident, became the student of the Ancient One, who taught him in the ways of the mystical arts. All very routine comic book stuff, really.
So how did an offbeat character like Strange end up on CBS? The network already had success with The Incredible Hulk and (to a lesser degree) The Amazing Spider-Man TV projects in the late 1970s, and executives were looking to expand on their comic book portfolio. Enter: Dr. Strange, a TV movie starring Peter Hooten as the titular Master of the Mystic Arts (who was a psychiatrist, not a surgeon in the movie), and Jessica Walter, of Arrested Development and Archer fame, as his nemesis, Morgan le Fay, a comic take on the Arthurian legend.
Though Walter had some notoriety after being nominated for a Golden Globe and winning a Primetime Emmy years earlier, Hooten certainly wasn't a household name. For that matter, neither was Dr. Strange himself; this was the first time the character would ever appear outside of a comic book. From the beginning the project was swimming upstream: No marquee star, an unknown comic book character, and special effects that didn't quite match the original comic all worked against the movie. Instead of replicating the trippy, panel-breaking illustrations of Ditko and dimension-spanning scripts of Lee, fans were treated to something far more low-tech:
The basic plot of the movie sees Morgan le Fay charged with killing both the original Sorcerer Supreme, played by John Mills, and Stephen Strange, who is set to take his place. It was written and directed by Philip DeGuere Jr., and Lee was even brought on as a creative consultant. Though Lee held ceremonial positions on The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man, he had the most input on Dr. Strange.
Despite Lee's involvement and the success of other Marvel series on the network, Dr. Strange simply didn't pull in viewers. Couple that with a budget that was higher than what CBS was accustomed to and Dr. Strange never really stood a chance. It failed to be picked up as a series, and within just a few years, both Hulk and Spider-Man were off CBS as well, marking the end of a premature superhero fad that was probably a bit too ambitious for the state of television at the time.
The film has gained a dubious reputation from fans in recent years, but Hooten still sees it as something to be proud of:
"I thought it was pretty good. I was pleased. I thought it all worked. I think everyone was surprised by the low ratings. The network also had reservations about the show because it cost a lot to produce and they had other options [for less-costly shows to make]. It’s part of the disappointment of acting—you realize that it’s not in your hands."
Nearly 40 years later, Doctor Strange is making a comeback, with Benedict Cumberbatch donning his cape on November 4. Though the new version doesn't exactly have to hit a home run in order to one-up its 1978 predecessor, the history of Doctor Strange can't be told without revisiting CBS's ill-fated attempt to bring some magic to the superhero landscape.