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What 'Doctor Strange' could've learned from awful '70s version

The 1978 made-for-TV movie "Dr. Strange" is not a good film, but it has an absolutely brilliant villain.

Michael Muller/Marvel

Peter Hooten as Dr. Stephen Strange in the 1978 TV movie "Dr. Strange".

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"Doctor Strange", in movie theatres now, is one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful movies you'll ever see. But there's something missing from Marvel's special effects extravaganza. So to diagnose the problem, we turned to Doctor Strange's first attempt to jump from page to screen.

On 6 September 1978 CBS aired "Dr. Strange", a TV movie featuring the mystical Marvel comics character Stephen Strange. The film was intended to launch another series as successful as previous Marvel adaptations "The Incredible Hulk" and "The Amazing Spider-Man", but it was trounced in the ratings by a rerun of "Roots". That was that, until this summer.

As stunning as their movie is, the makers of today's "Doctor Strange", starring Benedict Cumberbatch, could have learned something from the failed TV movie.

To be clear, I'm not saying the '70s "Dr. Strange" is a good movie. For a start, the producers rewrote Strange's origins to make him a psychiatrist instead of a crippled neurosurgeon. That could work -- a man dedicated to the scientific study of the mind forced to grapple with the discovery of very unscientific magic -- but it removes the character's hubris. And the movie spends an awkward period of time as a medical drama, as if the filmmakers thought audiences wanted to see "Quincy" with interdimensional beings shooting lightning at each other.

Worst of all is the good doctor himself. Before Cumberbatch donned the magical cape, there was Peter Hooten, who you may know from nothing else ever (unless, of course, you're a connoisseur of cult flicks like "Orca" or the original "Inglorious Bastards"). Director Philip DeGuere pushed hard for Hooten over a bigger-name actor, presumably because he wanted the film to look like a badly dubbed aftershave ad. Whether wooing patients or battling demons in the astral plane, Hooten's emotional range stretches from half-asleep to wondering if he's left the oven on. Great 'stache though.

Now, obviously it's unfair to compare the technical qualities of 1970s TV against today's sophisticated blockbusters. Even other modern blockbusters can't hold a candle to the 2016 "Strange", with its eye-popping kaleidoscope of CGI wonders. Yet the fantasy sequences of the '70s "Strange", bodged together with a wind machine and some coloured gels, actually work. Because the '70s "Strange" put some effort into something the 2016 "Strange" skimps on: actual characters.

Take away the gobsmacking effects and the 2016 "Strange" is a generic origin story. For example, when Cumberbatch is transported to the astral plane, it's just so we can see the trippy effects. When Hooten goes on the same trip, he's attempting to rescue possessed student Clea Lake, a task for which he's woefully unprepared. As lame as the effects are, the sequence has some actual drama that draws you in.

Hey, her name's Clea Lake! I just got that.

All this reminds me of "Power of the Daleks", a long-lost "Doctor Who" story also released this weekend. In "Daleks", suspenseful writing and compelling characters imbue even the wobbliest 1960s effects with genuine tension. Another reminder that engaging stories make effects exciting, and not the other way 'round.

Another highlight of '70s "Strange" is the pulsing, John Carpenter-esque synth score. But the best thing is the villain. In 2016 "Strange", Mads Mikkelson is on creepy form -- with neon mascara on point -- but his motivations are one-note. By contrast, '70s "Strange" has an absolutely brilliant baddie in Morgan Le Fay, demonic and sexy and even a bit sympathetic. Once again, it's the compelling character that makes the difference.

The glorious Jessica Walter from "Arrested Development" and "Archer" vamps away madly as Morgan, a centuries-old enchanting enchantress whose main superpower is lethal side-eye. Some of the best parts of the film come when Walter's demonic cheekbones haunt Clea in a safe-for-work version of Italian giallo horror movies, like Dario Argento's 1977 shocker "Suspiria".

There's more to Le Fay than immaculate lipstick though. She's as motivated by vanity as by evil, and her desires bring her into conflict with her mission to destroy Strange. "I am still a woman! I would feel the warmth of a man's arms again!" she wails to her demonic master, a furry glove puppet with a desk lamp up its backside. That leads to the intriguing climax, in which the seductive sorceress tempts Hooton's Strange with a shortcut to fantastical powers. It's a compelling twist compared with the 2016 film's montage of gaining powers through yawnsome training.

Today's "Doctor Strange" is certainly a treat for the eyeballs. If only the characters were more compelling. And if only Jessica Walter was in it.

Editor's note: CNET is a subsidiary of CBS (but we had nothing to do with the TV movie, honest).