Review: A powder keg of rocket science and occultism is ready to blow after the season premier of CBS' Strange Angel

With a range of cinematic styles and a strong narrative, the first episode of CBS' Strange Angel builds a gripping prelude to the story of Jack Parsons.

                            Review: A powder keg of rocket science and occultism is ready to blow after the season premier of CBS' Strange Angel
Rupert Friend (Source : Getty Images)

"We're in unchartered territory Rich. The time for caution is long gone," says Jack Parsons has he flicks open his lighter and gets set to light a fuse that runs to a rocket that would eventually go down as one of the earliest prototypes for all modern rockets today.

It's one of the several gripping moments in the pilot episode of CBS' new period drama 'Strange Angel' (aired 14 June), which presents a dramatized account of the story of Jack Parsons, a 20th-century rocket engineer who was also an occultist who subscribed to the teachings of Aleister Crowley. The show is adapted from George Pendle’s biography 'Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons'. The story of Parsons is so much stranger than fiction that it's a surprise the story wasn't adapted to screen in all these years.

The first episode introduces us to a young Parsons (Jack Reynor) in 1930's California who works a blue collar job at the chemical plant, but that's something he just does to win bread and occasionally siphon some gun-powder and other materials of use for his passion project - to build a rocket that puts a man in space. For an audience that lives in the era of Elon Musk and SpaceX, the on-screen depiction could have very well fallen flat. But Strange Angel assures that doesn't happen with a remarkable attention to detail in the sets of the period drama and in fact, evokes a curiosity for the story from the get-go.

The opening shot of the show presents a heavily red-tinted shot of Jack's comic-book fueled fantasies of a Japanese warrior seeking eternal glory, helmed-in by director David Lowery (also executive producer of the show), who takes us through a range of film styles to distinguish between the real and the surreal, a concept that is sure to be explored further in the show. Parsons' desire to attain his dream in the post-depression era forms the crux of the pilot while it also sets up the premise ever so carefully, without revealing too much, doing away with the need for a cliffhanger ending to keep audiences interesting.

When Parsons is not chipping away at his day job, he's off building rockets with his childhood friend Richard Onsted (Peter Mark Kendall) who is pursuing a doctor's degree at CalTech. The episode also fleshes out the friend/partner relationship between Parsons and Onsted, whose nightly escapades often leave Parsons' dutiful, devoted Catholic wife Susan (Bella Heathcote) lonely. But what could have very well been a flat supporting character in Susan actually takes up a pretty important part of the narrative in the first episode and touche to show writer Mark Heyman ('Black Swan', 'The Skeleton Twins') for the added character depth. 

While Jack's off chasing his rocketing dreams, Susan is left with little beyond her thoughts to occupy her. The relationship is best exemplified in a scene where the couple makes love, which is filmed from Susan's perspective - Jack brusquely rutting away as she’s left to stare off into the near distance, waiting for him to finish up, her mind occupied with financial issues and more pressing unfulfilled desires.

Things get shaken up in the episode when a mysterious neighbor moves next door to the Parsons. Where the Parsons’ concerns are painful but common, there’s hardly anything common about the hard-drinking, idiosyncratic Ernest (Rupert Friend). He arrives with a lamb that reeks of foreshadowing for an occult sacrifice scene and is very tight-lipped about his past. While Jack tries to figure out his new neighbor, he finds himself magnetically drawn to his ominous charm, which ultimately culminates in Jack's first encounter with the occult - a full-blown human sacrifice, complete with candlelight and eerily cast shadows of hooded figures. (The little lamb's foreshadowing was much worse than expected!). But so far, the themes of the occult have rightly played second fiddle to the more important narrative - that of Jack and Susan's fractured but content lives.

The episode is titled 'Augurs of Spring', in reference to one of the movements from Igor Stravinsky's ballet 'The Rite of Spring'. It's a fitting title for an episode that lays out a very good framework for a tight plot to follow. It's doubly apt when you consider the interplay between the musical score and the cinematography. The score incorporates many classical instruments and with a heavy string section, sets the tension in many key scenes. Meanwhile, the use of lighting is very apt for a show that is centered on the dichotomy of dark and light, of the flames of rockets and the dark shadows of the occult and sex magick. 

Being a historical period drama, we also get to see some shots that give us a history of rocket science. Historically speaking, Jack Parsons could be considered a pioneer in the field of rocket science. He was one of the principal founders of both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and CalTech. He invented the first rocket engine to use a composite rocket propellant and pioneered the advancement of liquid fuels, which are commonly used in today's rockets. The first episode shows us a glimpse of a 1930s CalTech with an all-male student roll and introduces us to Professor Filip Mesulam (Rade Serbedzija), who is the epitome of high brow education's finest example and Onsted's mentor.

Mesulam is what stands between Parsons and Onsted's high-flying dream and it's realization and there is a scene which ultimately sees the trio in the desert, hunkered behind a bunk of sandbags as they evaluate Parsons and Onsted's liquid-fuel powered rocket. The experiment ends with an explosion, one of many to surely follow in the show, and the scene is again juxtaposed with Jack's red-tinted comic book fantasy world as he experiences a moment of deep revelation.

All said and done, the first episode of 'Strange Angel' is a well-poised opener to the series, one that lays out the many branches of the main plot carefully and comprehensively. The Parsons' frailly strung lives - Jack's relentlessness to pursue his dream and Susan's detachment from reality are themes that will surely be explored through multiple lenses, while the looming shadowy mystery of the dark arts constantly hovers in the background. It shows all the signs of a strong pilot that can deliver a very gripping, immersive first season as it delves deeper into a story of one of the most bizarre yet oddly forgotten names in history.

'Strange Angel' is currently streaming on CBS All Access. New episodes are out every Thursday.