Before The MCU: DOCTOR STRANGE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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There was live-action life before the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the Master of the Mystic Arts...

I love Doctor Strange. A brilliant addition to the MCU and played marvelously by Benedict Cumberbatch. Although right now, with the whole Coronavirus pandemic and war in Ukraine raging, I'd love to be able to check in with Strange to find out which of the 14,000,605 timelines he has us living in? Surely he could've picked a better one for us, eh?

Referenced back in 2014 as merely "Stephen Strange" in dialogue by Agent Jasper Sitwell in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cumberbatch first appeared in the 2016 film Doctor Strange, reprising the role in Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: No Way Home and the much delayed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

But way before Benedict Cumberbatch took up residence in the Sanctum Sanctorum there was another Master of the Mystic Arts, and he was straight out of the glory days of disco...

Looking like he was prepping for a night out at Studio 54, Peter Hooten starred as Dr. Strange in a 1978 CBS made for television movie. Hooten's first TV role was a 1969 appearance on the drama Marcus Welby, M.D.. He also appeared as a guest star in The Waltons, Mod Squad and Mannix, and had high hopes when he landed the role of Dr. Stephen Strange as the plan was for this TV movie to work as a pilot for an ongoing Dr. Strange series, like The Incredible Hulk.

In Dr. Strange, the original Sorcerer Supreme, Thomas Lindmer, foresees the return to Earth of his ancient adversary Morgan LeFey, who has been granted dominance over men's souls by The Nameless One. In order to combat her evil magic, Lindmer must pass the Guardianship of the Light onto young Dr. Stephen Strange. Unlike the MCU's Strange, here he's a psychiatry-resident rather than neurosurgeon, but he still becomes the new Sorcerer Supreme to safeguard the Earth.

Hooten might have been relatively unknown at the time, but many other members of the cast were not. Stood next to the Studio 54 Sorcerer above is Jessica Walter who plays Morgan Le Fay. You know her from the films Play Misty for Me (1971), Grand Prix and The Group (both 1966), and you absolutely know her as Lucille Bluth on the sitcom Arrested Development. Dr. Strange's mentor and original Sorcerer Supreme, Thomas Lindme, was played by none other than Sir John Mills, who appeared in more than 120 films in a career spanning seven decades, including We Dive At Dawn, The Colditz Story and Ice Cold In Alex.

So there was much in the way of acting chops on display, along with a sizeable budget for writer/director/producer Philip DeGuere to bring Dr. Strange to the screen in all its green-screen, 70s special effects glory.

But it tanked! With reviewers calling it "boring" and complaining that "not much happens over the course of ninety minutes", and so CBS declined to pick it up for series.

Someone who very much enjoyed the 1978 Dr. Strange though was Stan Lee, and in an interview later in life he recounted the largely positive experience of working on it, compared with the other live-action Marvel Comics adaptations he worked on under the publisher's late 1970s development deal with CBS and Universal, saying,
"Captain America was a bit [of a] disappointment and Spider-Man was a total nightmare. I was pleased with The [Incredible] Hulk and Dr. Strange. I probably had the most input into that one. I've become good friends with the writer/producer Phil DeGuere. I think that Dr. Strange would have done much better than it did in the ratings except that it aired opposite Roots."
Yes, rating behemoth Roots was its competition. So it never really stood a chance.

But we're not finished with Doctor Strange yet! The 1970s TV series wasn't to be, but there were several attempts after that to bring a live-action Doctor Strange film to the big screen.

In 1984, Back To The Future co-writer Bob Gale was developing a script for New World Pictures. For unknown reasons, Gale's film never went further into production but he did attempt to get a credit for his work in the 2016 MCU production, as one of the co-writers of that feature, C. Robert Cargill, explained,
"A month after the movie goes out I get a phone call. The Writers Guild of America says, ‘Okay, we’ve got a problem. Bob Gale just contacted us and said that he wrote a draft in 1984 of Doctor Strange and he feels that that was borrowed for this film.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait, Bob Gale as in the guy who wrote Back to the Future?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, he wrote a draft of Doctor Strange.'

'Well that was done by Marvel Comics not Marvel Studios.’ And they’re like ‘Yeah Marvel Studios is owned by Disney who owns Marvel Comics so technically… chain of ownership goes all the way back.

I had to read every single draft, to then write a letter arguing how we didn’t borrow a single bit from a single draft (that we never knew existed)…

Bob Gale thought that ‘Well I was the first person to write a draft that used a guy named Stephen Strange, that used a guy named Mordo, and used a character called The Ancient One, so I get credit for those characters existing in a script.’

[Gale was] not aware that in 2004 the WGA had updated the rules on how credit gets attributed when adapting source material and now the rule is that anything you put in a script that comes from the source material doesn’t count as your material."
So no writing credit for Bob Gale.

Moving on to 1989, and Repo-Man and Sid & Nancy's Alex Cox had co-written a script with Stan Lee which would see Strange traveling to the Fourth Dimension before facing the villain Dormammu on Easter Island, Chile. A movie using this script was almost made by Regency, but the company's films were distributed by Warner Bros. at the time, which was in a dispute with Marvel over merchandising.

The closest we got to a Doctor Strange film on the big screen was in 1992 - in fact it was actually made, sort of, just direct to video and under a different name...

The 1992 film Doctor Mordrid starring Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) began development as a big screen Doctor Strange adaptation, but producer/director Charles Band's license on the character expired before he had secured the sufficient funds for the production. When it did begin filming, with a reduced budget of $2million, the project was rewritten to change the main character's name and slightly alter his origin. Like Disco-Strange, he's a psychiatrist, the Fourth Dimension is in play, but sorcery is all referred to as wizardry and there's a museum instead of a sanctum.

What was Charles Band's loss was Wes Craven's gain, and also the start of almost 25 years of development hell! In December 1992, the man behind A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, had signed to write and direct Doctor Strange for release in either 1994 or 1995, with Savoy Pictures distributing. An update in 1995 stated that David S. Goyer had completed a script for the film, but by April 1997 Columbia Pictures had purchased the film rights and Jeff Welch was working on a new screenplay, with Bernie Brillstein and Brad Grey producing. Three years later Columbia dropped Doctor Strange and Dimension Films acquired the rights.

By June 2001, Goyer was back on board as writer and director, promising not to be highly dependent on computer-generated imagery. However, by August 2001, Miramax acquired the film rights from Dimension, and Goyer dropped out of the project. A 2005 release date was announced by Miramax, but by June 2004, a script still had yet to be written. Marvel Studios CEO Avi Arad stated,
"We are nowhere with that. That's a tough one to write, but we are working on it. We are trying to find the real Jerry Garcia of the writing community."
In April 2005, Paramount Pictures acquired Doctor Strange from Miramax, as part of Marvel Studios' attempt to independently produce their own films. At the time, the film was projected to have a budget of $165 million.

In 2007, Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman pitched a version of the film to Marvel, with Gaiman writing and del Toro directing. Gaiman was especially interested in including the character Clea, but the studio was not interested.

Finally in March 2009, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe starting to take shape, Marvel kept things in-house and hired writers to help come up with creative ways to launch its lesser-known properties, including Doctor Strange. It would take several years, several drafts and several writers before Scott Derrickson got behind the camera for what was to be the 2016 Doctor Strange film, but the Sorcerer Supreme was finally taking his place in the MCU.

Next time, Stan Lee called it "a total nightmare" but just how bad was it? We look back at the pre-MCU live-action takes on Spider-Man.

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