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Supernatural TV pilots of the ’70s: Roddenberry’s SPECTRE and Marvel’s DR. STRANGE

Having previously covered Gene Roddenberry’s failed 1970s SF pilot movies Genesis II, Planet Earth, and The Questor Tapes, I’ve finally managed to complete the set with 1977’s Spectre, a supernatural-horror show starring Robert Culp, Gig Young, and John Hurt. While Roddenberry tended to prefer to keep his science fiction grounded and plausible — in principle if not always in practice — he made Spectre with the intent of taking the supernatural seriously, disdaining what he saw as the usual television approach of treating it as a hoax. Which means, going in, that there’s no chance of treating this pilot as a possible offshoot of the Star Trek multiverse as I prefer to do with G2/PE and TQT. I had wondered if maybe there was a chance of treating the supernatural forces as alien phenomena, a well Star Trek went to on multiple occasions, but I doubt that would work here.

Spectre, scripted by Roddenberry and Samuel A. Peeples and directed by Clive Donner, opens with Dr. Amos “Ham” Hamilton (Young) answering an urgent summons from his old friend William Sebastian (Culp), an eccentric criminal psychologist who has now become an expert on the occult, to Ham’s disbelief. Sebastian explains that he was almost killed by a voodoo curse of some sort that’s left him with a weak heart, and he needs Ham to keep him alive as he investigates a case involving the Cyon family in London. He says he was saved by his spell-casting housekeeper Lilith (Majel Barrett, an inevitable presence in any Roddenberry production), who also casts a spell to cure Ham’s alcoholism, which has come close to costing him his hospital practice. It soon becomes clear that Sebastian and Hamilton are modeled on Holmes and Watson, if Holmes were an occult detective and Watson a skeptic (and if they were both womanizers, this being a Roddenberry show).

Sebastian is visited by a seductive woman claiming to be Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell) and telling him that she was mistaken in believing something supernatural was going on at her estate. Sebastian figures out that she’s a succubus and burns her up with a book, though Ham is locked out of the study and doesn’t see it happen. Later, when flying to London in a private jet piloted by Mitri Cyon (Hurt, who looks amazingly young), the jet loses power and almost crashes, in what Sebastian interprets as another supernatural attempt to scare him off. Perhaps these are simply tests of his resolve?

In London, Sebastian takes Ham to meet an occult expert, but his house is on fire and they rush inside, finding him dead just short of the center of a pentacle drawn on the floor. They’re oddly untroubled by the flame and smoke as they examine the scene, then get into the pentacle to evade a demon of some sort that’s driven away when the fire department arrives along with a Scottish inspector (Gordon Jackson) who’s the Lestrade of the piece, I guess. The inspector, Cabell, is investigating a string of murders and desperately does not want the influential Sir Geoffrey Cyon linked to them.

Cyon Manor is an old abbey, refurbished inside with lots of erotic-themed artwork. Sir Geoffrey (James Villiers) leads an openly hedonistic lifestyle and keeps a household staff of sexy young women, who (among other services) entertain prominent leaders of finance and government from time to time. The real Anitra, looking more “spinsterish” than her succubus impostor, believes Sir Geoffrey is possessed by a demon, though he insists she just disapproves of his lifestyle, and she privately admits to Sebastian and Ham that she may just be jealous of the more attractive women surrounding her, though Ham says he finds her more attractive. Oh, and Sebastian finds the coffin from his voodoo doll in the house (but not the doll), and there are various attempts on their lives including glass shards in the wine and a breakaway balcony railing. Sebastian reads the journal of the dead occult expert, who feared that “Cyon” was possessed by Asmodeus, the Prince of Lechery, though it’s unclear which Cyon he meant. (The mythology presented for Asmodeus has only the most cursory connection to the real lore.) Later, Cyon’s women make a comically exaggerated attempt to seduce Ham, but Sebastian interrupts. He takes Ham to investigate strange wails coming from a small henge called the “Druids’ Firepit,” only to be waylaid by a Creepy Groundskeeper (TM) and his hounds. According to the journal, the Firepit is where Asmodeus was bound by the ancient druids until Cyon’s excavations released him. Sebastian explains to Cabell that Asmodeus takes the form of a dead person whose body has not yet been found, but Sir Geoffrey has alibis for a couple of the murders. (At this point, is anyone not expecting John Hurt to be the demon?)

Still, the movie keeps trying to make Mitri seem sympathetic and Sir Geoffrey look guilty, while arranging things so Sebastian and Ham can discover the underground catacombs where Asmodeus escaped from and prepare magical defenses. But they may be too late — Anitra is reported missing, and when our heroes witness a debauched ceremony in the catacombs below (complete with extra nudity added in the European release), they find not only that Mitri is Asmodeus and Sir Geoffrey is his disciple, but Anitra is their sacrificial victim. Suffice to say that good triumphs and evil is destroyed, and along the way, John Hurt turns into a really silly-looking lizard monster. Then there’s an obligatory Roddenberryesque tag where Anitra shows up at Sebastian’s home and charms Ham with her newly glamorous appearance.

Well, this was a mixed bag. The idea of a Holmes-like supernatural detective had promise, and Robert Culp did a terrific job as usual. But Gig Young was disappointing as Ham, not managing to achieve the same kind of chemistry with his co-star that Shatner had with Nimoy or The Questor Tapes‘ Mike Farrell had with Robert Foxworth. Casting Young would’ve been problematical if this had gone to series — not only was he unreliable due to his heavy alcoholism, but a year after this was made, he killed himself and his new wife for reasons that were never understood. Which makes it creepier to watch him than John Hurt.

The Roddenberry preoccupation with sex got a little tedious too, but by ’70s standards I guess it wouldn’t have been too bad. It’s odd that, both here and in Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row (which Roddenberry scripted and produced), Roddenberry portrays characters as licentious as promiscuous as himself as villainous figures. Was that just the only way he could sneak such things past the censors, or did it reflect some ambivalence about his own proclivities? We’ll probably never know. Anyway, the constant debate between Sebastian and Ham about whether the supernatural had a rational explanation was a little tiresome as well, but I suppose that’s because I’m looking back from an age where there are countless series that take the supernatural for granted — and even they generally go through the same beats of skepticism and doubt in their pilots. Ham was fully convinced of the supernatural by the end of the pilot, so that wouldn’t have been an ongoing issue except where guest stars and authority figures of the week were concerned. This could possibly have worked as a series, given a better co-star than Gig Young. But it would’ve had its problems that might have kept it from holding up too well today.

I’ve also finally gotten around to watching the 1978 Dr. Strange pilot movie, the one ’70s live-action Marvel Comics adaptation that I don’t remember seeing. I was curious because it was reportedly more authentic to the source than other contemporary Marvel adaptations like The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man (both airing on CBS, like this pilot). Apparently it’s the one project that Stan Lee consulted on most closely. Although it’s still pretty revisionist compared to the recent feature film version. It was written and directed by Philip DeGuere, Jr., who would later head up the 1980s Twilight Zone revival.

After a main title sequence featuring the distinctive Blaster Beam musical instrument, we go to a Steve Ditkoesque dimensional plane where a vaguely seen, multi-eyed stop-motion demon called the Nameless One assigns Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter) to strike at the current Sorceror Supreme, Lindmer (John Mills), before he can pass his power to Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten), who works as a psychiatric resident at a New York hospital and is apparently quite the ladies’ man, like most ’70s TV leads. Lindmer sends his aide Wong to locate Strange, whom he knew years before. Wong is played by Clyde Kusatsu, later ST:TNG’s Admiral Nakamura and one of three Star Trek veterans to have played the role (George Takei voiced him in the ’90s Spider-Man cartoon, and onetime DS9 guest Paul Nakauchi voiced him in the 2007 animated DVD movie). The next day, Morgan strikes at Lindmer by possessing a young woman, Clea (Eddie Benton), and pushing him off a bridge. He survives, but is concerned that Clea is now in danger, since such possession has consequences.

That night, Strange and Clea both fall asleep watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (a reminder of the days when there were only a few channels on TV) and share Clea’s nightmare as she relives her possession and is stalked by Morgan. Clea flees into the street and almost gets hit by a cab, whose driver finds her amnesiac and takes her to the hospital, where Strange recognizes her and has her admitted. She insists she’ll die if she falls asleep, so she’s upset the next morning when Nurse Ratched (well, the nearest equivalent) tries to give her a sedative. While Strange argues with Ratched and the uncaring hospital administrator about his more compassionate admissions policies, Morgan tests the wards on the Sanctum Sanctorum (with its iconic window accurately rendered) and Lindmer uses a straight-up Jedi Mind Trick to get in to see Clea. He instead ends up talking to Strange, who turns out not to be aware of him or his world. But Lindmer gets him interested enough that, when the uncaring administrator tricks Clea into taking a tranquilizer that puts her in a coma, Strange goes to Lindmer and gets the expository speech about sorcery. Turns out Lindmer and Strange’s father were friends and worked together to protect Strange from the demonic forces that killed his parents. Lindmer convinces Strange to take a journey into the astral planes to rescue Clea’s wandering soul, and it’s a very psychedelic journey with Strange flying through a 2001/Time Tunnel corridor of trippy lights and fighting a Ted Cassidy-voiced black knight in a blurry astral realm before spiriting Clea’s spirit back to her body.

Dormammu — err, the Nameless One is mad at Morgan for failing to kill Strange because she thinks he’s hot, so he gives her one more chance. But Strange is still unconvinced even after his mystical journey, walking out on Lindmer — and Morgan uses the old “pretend to be Lindmer’s cat trying to get out of the rain so Strange will carry you across the threshold” trick to get into the Sanctum, strike Wong down, and overpower Lindmer, calling on the demon Asmodeus (oh, hi again, how’ve you been?) to spirit him away. Morgan then interrupts Strange’s date with Clea (now his ex-patient, so it’s ethical, allegedly), sends her back to sleep, and takes Strange with her to the astral plane, where she seduces him with wealth, power, knowledge, and, err, other stuff. But he resists the temptation and finds the power to battle her, rescuing Lindmer and foiling Morgan’s plans. He then accepts the transfer of Sorceror Supreme power from Lindmer to him, under the auspices of an Ancient One that’s just a bright light with Michael Ansara’s voice. And somehow Morgan is back pretending to be a motivational speaker or something, a hook for the theoretical series to come, despite her fate at her master’s hands just minutes of screen time before.

This is very ’70s, but actually pretty good. It’s a decent interpretation of the material, it’s pretty well-written, and the effects are rather good for a ’70s TV movie (although it occurs to me that this was the same studio and the same year as Battlestar Galactica, though a different effects house, Van Der Veer Photo Effects, who did some Star Trek work a decade or so earlier). I’d expected it to go a bit differently, with Lindmer dying due to Strange’s mistake and Strange vowing to make amends. But I guess if CBS’s Spider-Man wasn’t willing to use that origin for Peter Parker, I shouldn’t have expected it here. TV heroes at the time were generally expected to be more infallible and pure than that. And I imagine, given that Strange was a practicing resident here rather than an ex-surgeon, that the intent would’ve been to use a lot of standard hospital-drama tropes, with Strange continuing to clash with his uncaring administrator much like Quincy or Trapper John, and to use that comfortable formula to ground the more fantastic elements and make the show more palatable to the general audience, much like how many genre shows today get shoehorned into a crime-procedural mode. Which could even have worked, with good enough writing, and De Guere did a pretty good job of that. Stan Lee blamed its poor ratings on being scheduled opposite Roots; if not for that, maybe it would’ve gone to series. I doubt it would’ve been as good as the contemporary Hulk series, but it would probably have been better than Spider-Man. Too bad the pilot is all we got.

Thoughts on DOCTOR STRANGE (spoilers)

November 24, 2016 1 comment

I finally got around to seeing Marvel’s Doctor Strange. I hadn’t been in a rush to see it because the reviews have been mixed, with some praising it but others saying it was just another run-of-the-mill Marvel origin movie. But I quite enjoyed it. The formula may have been familiar, but the execution was fresh and engaging in a lot of ways.

I grant that it’s a little hard to sympathize with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stephen Strange at first. He’s good at what he does, and the opening surgical sequences do a good job of establishing how important the precision of his hands is to him, but he’s also an arrogant jerk, and not as charmingly so as Robert Downey, Jr. But if the goal is to make us want to see him get comeuppance and begin a journey of transformation, it succeeds. Although I wish the movie had done more to give us some indication of why Strange would be chosen as a sorceror candidate, what this great potential was that the Ancient One saw in him. If anything, the lead character himself is one of the least well-drawn figures in the film.

But that’s the film’s strength, in a way. Marvel films have a tendency to focus on the heroes’ journeys and complexities and keep the villains kind of simplistic, which is a shame, because Marvel Comics have long been known for the richness of their villains’ personalities. Here, though, the supporting cast and the villains (both present and future) are nuanced and well-drawn. The main villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) was not what I expected — far from seeking power or vengeance or some standard villain motive, he sincerely believes he’s saving the world and doing good for its people; he’s just been misled by Dormammu’s promises, and is too dismissive of sacrificing individual lives to save the greater number. I was surprised at what a sympathetic figure he turned out to be. And Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo is a fascinating character — an ally of Strange and the Ancient One rather than the power-hungry traitor he was in the comics, but one who has harsh and unyielding sensibilities — a willingness to do whatever violence is necessary to achieve his goals, and a rigid adherence to the rules that makes him unwilling to accept it when his allies break the rules to save the world. In an inversion of the original character, this Mordo sees himself as the betrayed one instead of the betrayer. I’m somewhat reminded of Ejiofor’s Operative character in Serenity — an antagonist who stood for law and order and believed that the unethical things he did were necessary to defend a peaceful, orderly system he revered above all else. Although the Operative went from antagonist to ally, while Mordo went the other way. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is a nicely nuanced character as well, taking questionable steps that make Mordo’s sense of betrayal understandable.

One thing I did really like about Strange, in contrast to prior Marvel Cinematic Universe screen heroes, is that he has a clearly stated aversion to killing, and shows remorse when it becomes necessary. This is something that’s been standard for the majority of comic-book superheroes since the ’40s, but it’s all too rare in their movie counterparts, since American adventure movies tend to be made within a paradigm that presumes the villains must die. This is something that’s always bothered me about feature adaptations of superheroes, and I’ve always found it hypocritical that the movies’ Tony Stark supposedly gave up the weapons business due to a crisis of conscience but still routinely uses lethal armaments as Iron Man. But it seems we’re finally starting to see a movement toward heroes with more of a resistance to killing. In Ant-Man, Scott Lang was pretty firm about being opposed to violent methods (although there was dialogue there suggesting that the Avengers were presumed to use lethal force by default), and on Netflix, both Daredevil and Luke Cage are firmly against killing (though in the former case that seems to waver where ninjas are concerned) and Jessica Jones avoided it except in one special case. I do find it ironic that the supposedly darker Netflix shows have more non-lethal heroes than the supposedly light and fluffy MCU movies, although that’s going to change somewhat now that there’s a Punisher series in production. But maybe the movies are starting to turn away from lethal heroes somewhat. I certainly hope that’s the case with Spider-Man: Homecoming, at least.

As far as the visuals and the depiction of magic are concerned, I admit I’m not a big fan of the kaleidoscopic urban-origami Inception-ish stuff that’s featured in all the trailers. It’s certainly a fresh way of depicting magic, but it’s just too overcomplicated in its execution, all these pieces of buildings folding over and reduplicating and tessellating. I mean, these are supposedly changes that the sorcerors are making to the environment to benefit themselves and confound their foes. That much makes sense. But it doesn’t seem necessary to make all those thousands of nibbly little changes to the environment to achieve one specific effect, and it’s hard to believe one person could have the concentration to initiate and control all those individual changes at once. So I might’ve liked it better if it had been a little less overdone, less mechanical-looking, less cluttered with detail.

But I really liked a lot of the other things they did. There’s some very clever stuff here. I liked the way Strange integrated his sorcery and his medicine, using his “Sling Ring” to teleport to the hospital and draw on his colleague/ex Christine (Rachel McAdams) for help in key moments. It helps explain why he holds onto the title “Doctor Strange” instead of Master — he’s not giving up that side of himself completely, but is finding ways to integrate the old and the new. There was some clever stuff in the astral-body battle, and the final scene between Strange and the Ancient One was beautifully done, both visually and in writing/character terms. The battle in Hong Kong was inspired, the way they integrated the combatants moving forward in time with the environment moving backward, including some very clever ways of using the time inversion against the villains. I’ve never seen anything like this in a movie before, and it was delightful. The climax with Strange confronting Dormammu was also excellent, and it really showed how far Strange had grown, to the point where he’d finally set aside his ego completely for the good of the world. That was really effective.

I decided to splurge on seeing the movie in 3D, to get the full effect of the visuals, and it did add to the experience somewhat. Still, I’m not sure if the problem is with the theater or my eyes, but I had the same problems with depth of field that I’ve had with other 3D movies, in that things seem to be closer than they should — a lot of things seemed to be right in front of my face when they should be at least a bit further back, and characters in long shots often seemed tiny and close rather than normal-sized and distant. The theater also had a pretty bad sound mix that made some of the dialogue hard to hear, though it wasn’t as bad in the film as in the trailers.

One thing’s for sure — Cumberbatch definitely looks the part of Dr. Strange. And judging from the mid-credits scene, he’s wasting no time involving himself in the business of the superhero community going forward. I do look forward to seeing where he and Mordo go from here. (And Wong. Wong is cool. I should’ve said that.)

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