CLEVELAND, Ohio – Having already launched a new “Star Trek” series and now waiting for writer-director Jordan Peele’s reboot of “The Twilight Zone,” streaming service CBS All Access is reaching for the stars this summer with a period drama called “Strange Angel.” Premiering Thursday, June 14, it is an ambitious but uneven show based on the colorful and controversial life of Jack Parsons.
And, yes, it is strange. Pretty much had to be, given its subject.
If you have spent any time at all watching cable shows devoted to supernatural places, outer spaces or mysteries at museums and monuments, you’ve probably heard of Parsons. He’s a popular fellow with these series drawn to the more bizarre corners of history, science and American culture.
Even “Drunk History” has expelled some boozy breath on the enigmatic Parsons, who, like one of his sky-high experiments, was a combustible mix of elements. He was a pioneering rocket engineer, a fearless chemist, the co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a controversial occultist.
As storied a figure as he is in the history’s-mysteries cable world, Parsons might well seem like an odd choice for the lead character in a television drama. Well, he is an odd choice. Indeed, they don’t come much odder.
Space, you see, wasn’t the final frontier for Parsons. He also dreamed of reaching other realms as a practitioner of English writer, occultist and mystic Aleister Crowley’s new religious movement, Thelema.
Yet that odd nature and the intriguing duality of his personality make Parsons the ideal choice of subject for a series that, according to CBS All Access, “explores the dramatic intersection between genius and madness, science and science fiction.”
And perhaps, in theory, this makes “Strange Angel” an ideal choice for a streaming service poised somewhere between “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone.” Parsons, after all, as played by Irish actor Jack Reynor with a Jimmy Kimmel-like voice, is the walking embodiment of the Fifth Dimension mapped out by Rod Serling: “It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.”
Parsons covers all of that territory, but “Strange Angel,” for all of this mighty potential, doesn’t quite know how to perfectly blend those formidable ingredients into one powerful narrative formula. At least that’s the case with the first three episodes, which were made available to critics.
The opening episodes can get a bit plodding, mired in round after round of exposition and character development. Series creator and executive producer Mark Heyman (“Black Swan,” “The Skeleton Twins”), working from George Pendle’s 2005 biography of the same name, has designed this drama as a slow build. But a build to what?
Once “Strange Angel” gets all of this preliminary stuff out of the way and Reynor’s Parsons gets deeper into the “sex magick” Thelema rituals, will Heyman and his team hit their storytelling stride? The first three episodes contain plenty of hints about the dark twists and weird turns ahead, only making you wish you’d reach those destinations a lot sooner and in grander style.
“Strange Angel” begins with a dream-like sequence bathed in an eerie reddish light. It is a dream – a daydream, to be precise, inspired by a pulp magazine story Parsons is reading during a work break.
Symbolically, it’s a slyly appropriate opening. It looks backward, since Parsons was inspired by the writing of Jules Verne and science fiction stories. It also anticipates what is to come, being the first of several mystical flourishes foreshadowing the offbeat paths ahead for Parsons.
“If you never face down death, you’ll never glimpse what’s on the other side,” a voice says in the story Parsons sees in his imagination.
When we first meet Parsons, he is working as a janitor at a chemical-mixing plant. By night, he is mixing chemicals in his Pasadena garage workshop-laboratory.
Like many struggling during the Depression, he has dreams. The main dream is to perfect a fuel that will power rockets.
Parsons has a devoted wife, Susan (Bella Heathcote), and best friend, Richard (Peter Mark Kendall), both of whom are alternately amused and concerned by his impulsive rush for results.
“I just wish you’d stick to the facts, once in a while,” Richard, his partner-in-rocketry, tells him.
Here’s one place the series doesn’t stick to facts. Names have been changed, including those of Parsons’ wife and associates. Clearly, however, Richard is at least partly based on rocket scientist and Parsons’ school chum, Ed Forman.
Parsons’ attraction to the occult is given a boost by the arrival of a strange new neighbor, Ernest (Rupert Friend). Challenging the rocket scientist to break free of social norms, Ernest quotes a basic tenet of Thelema philosophy: “Do what thou wilt.”
When Parsons explains the principle of how a controlled explosion can propel a rocket to unimagined heights, Ernest says, “There’s a part trying to burst free and another part trying to keep it in control.”
It’s somewhat obvious and pat as dialogue, but it does capture the twin trails Parsons will be treading.
If “Strange Angel” can pick up speed once it’s fully on both those trails, it won’t have any shortage of fascinating ground to explore. Almost every aspect of Parsons’ life is shrouded in mystery.
He was drawn to Pasadena’s Devil’s Gate, a creepy rock formation that some occultists have viewed as a portal to hell. He had an affair with his wife’s sister, who left him for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. He was accused of espionage during the Red Scare. And, not to blow the ending (although this has been reported in every account of Parsons’ life), he died at the age of 37 in a home-laboratory explosion.
His death officially was ruled an accident, but theories have been put forth, ranging from assassination to ritual killing.
So, sure, no shortage of material. Less sure is the direction in the first three episodes. If they are typical of what’s to come, then, like so many of those early rockets, “Strange Angel” won’t get too far off the launch pad.
What: A series based on the life of rocket engineer and occultist Jack Parsons.
When: Thursday, June 14.
Where: CBS All Access