OTHERWORLDLY

The Kinky Rocket Scientist Who Dabbled in a Sex Magick Cult

From Mark Heyman (‘Black Swan’) and David Lowery (‘A Ghost Story’) comes a compelling new CBS All-Access series chronicling the extraordinary life of Jack Parsons.

CBS

'“A harebrained idea fit only for Hollywood films,” is how esteemed Caltech Professor Filip Mešulam (Rade Šerbedžija) describes Jack Parsons’ (Jack Reynor) desire to build a rocket capable of taking a man to the moon in episode two of Strange Angel, CBS All Access’ new series premiering this Thursday (June 14). It’s a description that might also apply to the life of Parsons himself, were he not a real genius who, in the '30s, was responsible for numerous breakthroughs in the nascent field of “rocket science” while simultaneously dabbling in Thelemite occultism alongside his mentor and friend, Aleister Crowley. His is a story marked by groundbreaking research and out-there cultish beliefs and behavior, and in the hands of showrunner Mark Heyman (Black Swan) and director David Lowery (A Ghost Story), it proves an intriguing case study in ambition, experimentation, and self-actualization through sex magick.

Based on George Pendle’s novel Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons, CBS All Access’ latest streaming effort would seem, on the surface, to be an ideal fit for David Lynch, whose own work similarly navigates the intersections between the suburban, scientific, and supernatural. Nonetheless, Strange Angel (also executive produced by Ridley Scott) is a far more straightforward effort than Lynch’s most recent Twin Peaks: The Return, even if Heyman has amassed an impressive group of directors to shepherd the project to the screen. Chief among them is Lowery, who handles behind-the-camera duties for the maiden episode and, in doing so, sets the series’ sumptuous visual template of inky shadows, blooming white lights, and camerawork that follows characters through hallways and segregates them in the frame amidst isolating architectural structures. It’s an aesthetic that lends the action an eerie beauty, and is ably duplicated by the many esteemed artists to whom he hands the reins, including Ben Wheatley (Kill List), Ernest Dickerson, Kate Dennis and Nelson McCormick.

Aided by A Ghost Story composer David Hart’s collection of insistent strings and sparse piano (which, per Lowery’s habit, often play through scenes even when characters are speaking), Strange Angel imparts a sense of barreling forward—euphorically, recklessly—into the unknown. Its protagonist, Jack, is a dreamer confident he’s destined to achieve his goals, which involve constructing the sorts of self-propelled outer-space vehicles he read about as a child in Buck Rogers.

Far from a fantasy, Jack’s aims are bolstered by his considerable intellect, and at show’s outset, he and his best friend, mathematician Rich Onsted (Peter Mark Kendall), are laboring to keep one of his self-made rockets in the sky for longer than a few seconds. No matter that he dropped out of college to provide for his family during the depression, and is now toiling away at a chemical plant job, trained chemist Jack is convinced success lies just around the corner—or, as he soon determines, by procuring some liquid fuel.

The key to understanding Jack is a series of interludes sprinkled throughout the first episode, which depict the “Amazing But True” pulp story he’s reading. That tale involves a Chinese hunter searching for fulfillment through death (he hunts a giant tiger) and sex (cue the unsatisfying orgy!). As Jack’s wife Susan (Bella Heathcote) correctly opines, that saga is about the search for the sublime, and so too is Jack’s own odyssey—a parallel (underlined by the use of the color red) that finally manifests itself at the end of the debut installment, when Jack and his fictional double both achieve transcendence through explosive means. What truly puts Jack on the course that will define his remaining years, however, is his encounter with new next-door neighbor Ernest Donovan (Homeland’s Rupert Friend), who greets Jack and Susan at his front door with a lamb in his arms, and then after being invited over for dinner, promptly stands them up—and then excuses his rude absence by saying that such frivolities would only interfere with his pursuit of his “truth path…How can I do that talking about barbeques and lawnmowers?”

Ernest’s ethos involves doing what you want as a way of embracing your genuine self. And that notion, in turn, is preached by the group with which he meets in the dead of night, at a strange lodge populated by robed members. Surreptitiously following Ernest to one of these gatherings, Jack encounters ceremonial chanting, gleaming knives, and a nude virgin. Though he flees this scene (albeit not before first calling clumsy attention to his presence), he and Susan are far from done with it.

Strange Angel is, at heart, a show about Jack’s pioneering professional life converging with his darker personal one. In that regard, one wishes Susan had been crafted with a bit more engaging complexity; as ably embodied by Heathcote, she remains a tad too two-dimensional. Still, Lowery and company expertly lay out how Jack’s determination to achieve greatness by doing things his way, as well as his and Susan’s dissatisfaction—with their staid love life, money troubles, and the condescending barbs tossed at them by Susan’s father-boss Virgil (Michael Gaston), who keeps the couple financially afloat—leads them to embrace Ernest’s organization.

It’s frustrating that, at least in the initial three episodes provided to press, Strange Angel takes so much time getting Jack and Susan to the doorstep of Thelema. Though diligent about establishing Jack’s journey to Caltech (where he and Rich secure funding, if not full-time employment) and to the occult, the series’ earlygoing is often a bit draggy, as if it’s sure viewers will be patient enough to stick around for the ensuing juicier material. In a streaming world rife with binge-watching options, that seems like a risky gamble. Nonetheless, Reynor’s lead performance is captivatingly cocky and sincere, Friend is a wacko hoot, and Lowery’s handling of these period-piece proceedings is so entrancing—full of ominous transitional fades and gorgeously illuminated nighttime landscapes and interior tableaus—that it’s easy to forgive the show its maiden, and minor, dramatic missteps.

Moreover, given that the real Jack’s life involved adultery, communal living, unconventional sexual practices, UFO sightings and dark magic, Strange Angel has promise to spare. Anyone aware of Jack’s ultimate fate will be amused by one character’s early admonishment that he should be careful with rockets lest he fail “or worse, blow yourself up.” But foreshadowing be damned, it’s not its predetermined destination that makes the show so compelling; it’s the insane path it’ll take to get there.