Strange Angel – Episodes 1 – 4
Starring: Jack Raynor, Bella Heathcote, Rupert Friend, Peter Mark Kendall, Rade Serbedzija, Zack Pearlman, Keye Chen
Director: David Lowery (Episodes 1, 2), Tucker Gates (Episode 3), Nelson McCormick (Episode 4)
Writers: (Based on the book by George Pendle), Mark Heyman (Episodes 1, 2), Allison Miller (Episode 3), David DiGilio (Episode 4 )
Reviewed by Sidney Morgan
This review CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
Some people just have a knack for things. Some more than others. Think of Einstein, Mozart, Monet, Shakespeare to name a few. Ok, maybe they’re extreme examples, but they’re also the ones we know more about. They all contributed greatly to the fields of their expertise. But these people didn’t always start off well. Einstein’s elementary teachers thought he was challenged. His high school teachers did not like his attitude, kicking him out before he could graduate. Furthermore, some of these bright minds have odd behaviours. Balzac drinks upwards of 50 cups of coffee a day. Einstein at raw bugs picked from the ground. Tesla had a regimented work day, lasting from 3 am to 11 pm. And Jack Parsons was no different.
Strange Angel stars Jack Raynor as Parsons, a chemistry student who had to drop out of college because of financial troubles. However, his passion for rocketry remained and he experimented with various types of fuels, including liquid. In the end, he was one of the principal founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). His drive and zeal, along with his brilliance, accounted for much of his success. But, he also had an odd side. Early in his rocketry career, he joins an occult organization, intrigued by its mystic and transcendental roots. And though Parsons embraces this philosophy, his subsequent behaviours inevitably come to haunt him.
Jack Parsons’ life was exciting, crazy and unfortunately short. However, the show takes a different approach. The first four episodes serve to establish three things. First, we get to know Jack, the man, and visionary. He’s got big dreams. He wants to go to the moon, into the cosmos. He’s like that kid on Christmas morning who tears through the wrapping to get to the present. He’s driven, yet frustrated and discouraged, as it bothers him that he’s not taken seriously. Second, they establish the mood and atmosphere. Something is simmering. Jack’s dreams tease of something that transcends his reality. There are mysteries, lies, and an underlying tension. And this ultimately leads to the third thing. They give Ernest the time to manipulate and direct Jack and Susan toward Thelema (the occult organization).
Jack Raynor gives an excellent performance. He has an innocent boyish look about him, which also served him well as Norton in Impossible Planet (from Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams anthology). He perfectly conveys the wonderment at his experiments and his search for that something more, that intangible. He is surrounded by an excellent cast, especially Bella Heathcote as his wife, Susan. Their juxtaposition is perfect. Whereas Jack is the dreamer, the experimenter, the one who promises Susan he will give her a rosy and stable future (they are struggling financially), she’s the grounded one, the realist, the one who sees the unpaid bills and the hardships. Yet she also dreams of the life Jack promised. Their rocky relationship is tested and adds another interesting dimension to this drama.
Other standout characters include the dark and mysterious neighbour Ernest (Rupert Donovan) who moves into the house next door in the middle of the night. Mysterious and creepy, he’s the one who’ll link Jack and the occult. There’s also Jack’s prudent friend and partner Richard (Peter Mark Kendall), professor Mesulam (Rade Serbedzija), as well as his two new associates Samson (Zack Pearlman) and Gui (Keye Chen). The names of all these characters, except for Jack’s, have been changed, presumably to allow some creative direction without any ramifications.
The show looks nice. The locations and sets were effective in setting the story in its proper era, similar to Manhattan, which aired a few years ago. The mood is enhanced with the visual presentation. Browns and drab colors that permeate Jack’s home life stand in opposition to the deep and rich reds of his dreams and the brighter ones of his rocket research. Everything works well together to enhance the quality of the show.
Jack Parsons played an important role in the development of rocket science. His enthusiasm and perhaps less orthodox ways of conducting his experiments played an important role in the advancement of rocketry and the establishment of JPL. However, it’s his side activities that make the man more media worthy. It’s no coincidence that CBS All Access uses the following order of words in its show poster: Sex. Magick. Rocket Science. But it’s well done, with class and minimal exploitation, at least so far – the more notorious behaviours only happen once in Thelema, which occurs later in the show.
Strange Angel is a moody, strange, yet intriguing and well-done television show. There is a healthy balance of all aspects of Jack’s life, providing legitimacy to his work as opposed to painting him as an occultist nut. The acting is top-notch, and the story slowly builds, teasing what’s to come. It’s definitely a worthwhile watch.
Strange Angel is available on CBS All Access.