Jack Parsons, the subject of CBS All Access' new biographical drama series Strange Angel, doesn't seem like a real guy. If a writer made him up, he'd seem like he had too much going on. But it's true: Parsons was a brilliant rocket scientist who made pioneering contributions to the then-burgeoning field of jet propulsion in the '30s and '40s, helping make what was then almost science fiction into reality. He was also an occultist who led the Los Angeles chapter of a mystical religion/black magick sex cult called Thelema and whose personal life was as complicated as the chemical equations he solved.
"He was a fascinating character who straddled the divide between cutting-edge science and darker pursuits and embodied a lot of the contradictions of his time and the contradictions of the city," says series creator Mark Heyman, who adapted the story from George Pendle's biography of the same name.
Strange Angel starts at the beginning of Parsons' ascent into the heavens and descent into the underworld. It's September 1938, and Parsons (Jack Reynor) is a frustrated young aspiring scientist who's trying to get the California Institute of Technology to take his ideas seriously. Meanwhile, his peculiar new neighbor Ernest Donovan (Rupert Friend) is trying to get Jack and his wife Susan (Bella Heathcote) to take his ideas seriously — ideas like "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law," which is the guiding principle of Thelema, the occult belief system created by Aleister Crowley, "the wickedest man in the world."
Heyman's conception of the story is a slow burn over five seasons or so. The first season will cover a period of about a year and a half as Parsons develops his science and learns about the occult, ending as World War II picks up and the U.S. military starts to take rocketry seriously as a way to send explosives over long distances. Further seasons will get deeper into both the science and the magic as Parsons becomes a wealthy defense contractor and the leader of his own Thelemic lodge.
The Parsons story is so rich that the show could have skipped the origin and started at a later point in time and focused on one part of the story, like how Parsons was close friends with L. Ron Hubbard until Parsons' mistress (who was Parsons' wife's sister) left him for Hubbard and they absconded with much of Parsons' life savings and focused their energy on developing what would become Scientology. But Heyman wanted to ground the story before diving into the stranger parts.
"It felt like to me, in order to do true justice to the story, you really had to understand not just the salacious details of Jack Parsons' life, but understand what his very real contributions were to rocket science in particular," Heyman says. At the time, rocket science was in its infancy and spaceflight was still science fiction. Heyman compares someone pursuing rocket science back then to someone pursuing time travel now. "It felt important that before we go down the rabbit hole with this character to also tell the story of how he became the builder of this major defense contractor and became quite wealthy as a result and to tell the story of the birth of the military-industrial complex," he says. So while the occult is present in Season 1, it's not the bulk of the story. It's more about Parsons' work at Caltech and his relationship with his wife.
The show will get to Hubbard as well as other real people Parsons interacted with eventually, Heyman says. That will be a change from Season 1, which aside from Parsons is mostly populated with fictionalized composite characters. The mysterious neighbor Ernest Donovan is a creation, and in real life Parsons' wife was named Helen, not Susan, to point out two examples.
"We are technically inspired by Parsons' life, not based on," says executive producer David DiGilio. "We've taken liberties with certain characters. Created our own characters to surround him. We kind of like to think this is the story of Jack Parsons' life that Jack would want to tell."
But even though some of the supporting characters are punched up and the timeline is a bit fudged, the truth of Parsons remains intact. His stranger-than-fiction story is compelling both for its weirdness and its relatability.
"There's something very universal about Jack Parsons," Heyman says. "All of us have this desire to make the world into exactly what we want it to be. And to see a character actually pursue his desires even as the world grows darker and scarier around him and is pushing back against him, I think in each and every one of us we'd like to have the courage to fearlessly try to break through every barrier that stands in our way."
There's also a bit of the Icarus fable in the Jack Parsons story. Parsons died in a mysterious explosion in 1952 at age 37. He may have been trying to perform alchemy. He achieved many of his desires, but they also killed him. That's a story for Season 5, though.
Strange Angel's premiere episode is now streaming on CBS All Access. New episodes come out Thursdays.
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