CBS All Access’ new drama “Strange Angel” explores the true, bizarre, dual life of Jack Parsons, a 1930s rocket enthusiast who helped create Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory but also fell into an occult religion than performed magic sex rituals. As he got deeper into Thelema, the religious movement created by Aleister Crowley, Parsons also became tight with L. Ron Hubbard — the sci-fi writer who would eventually create Scientology.
Hubbard doesn’t make an appearance in Season 1 of “Strange Angel,” which mostly focuses on Parsons’ early obsession with rockets and his belief that humans might one day break into space, along with his early curiosity in the occult and what led to him being recruited into that world.
But “Strange Angel” creator Mark Heyman, who adapted George Pendle’s book of the same name, said he won’t shy away from Hubbard and his relationship with Parsons when the time comes.
“We’re going to deal with it,” he told an audience on Sunday at the ATX Television Festival. “You’ve got to keep watching. Not in this season, but we’re not shying away from anything. Certainly any of the truth is going to be in this show and then multiplied by 10 in terms of how we’re going to dive into it.”
Scientology, of course, is notoriously protective of the image and legacy of Hubbard, and Heyman said he’s well aware that the organization might want to keep tabs on where the show goes in depicting the relationship between Parsons and Hubbard. “I live about a half-mile from the Scientology Celebrity Centre, so I fully expect surveillance and pamphlets left at my door,” he said. “I’m not even half-joking. We know what we signed up for.”
But so far, the Church of Scientology hasn’t contacted the show. “A few years ago I think people would have been a lot more scared,” Heyman said. “We are following on the heels the ‘Going Clear’ documentary coming out, and there’s that Leah Remini series. I think the cat’s out of the bag a little bit about them, so they’ve grown a little less litigious. Because a lot of secrets that they had been keeping are out there.
Once the Parsons/Hubbard relationship is addressed on the show, it does offer plenty of storytelling fodder. “L. Ron Hubbard’s first wife was Jack Parsons’ second wife, who he stole away from Jack, along with a lot of his life savings. But the Church of Scientology denies the existence of this woman, basically. They’ve disavowed her as the actual wife of L. Ron Hubbard. So it’s dicey stuff. But we’re not going to shy away from it.”
Heyman noted that “Strange Angel,” which had been in development for more than four years, finally came to fruition during a boom in TV projects about cults — including the recent Netflix docuseries “Wild Wild Country” and the Paramount Network limited series “Waco.” Also currently in the headlines: the NXIVM sex cult.
Heyman was drawn to the story of “Strange Angel” because he grew up partly on a commune in New Mexico. “There’s a lot of cult shows, a lot of interest in cults. It’s obvious to pick a cult and say these people are insane. I wanted to create a character through who his lens we could devise the meaning of this group and what he could get out of it — at least understand what people feel to get out of it.
“There is this morbid fascination [with cults],” he added. “On the one hand I think people find them kind of repellant. But what happens in these groups is normal social codes break down, and there’s this certain excitement and freedom that have those rules thrown out the window. These rules we live by in society, and these groups throw them out the door. There’s something interesting about that.”
Rupert Friend plays Ernest, the Parsons’ new, mysterious next-door neighbor who leads Jack (played by Jack Reynor) down the path to join the sex cult. Reynor, Friend, Heyman, showrunner/executive producer David DiGilio and director/executive president David Lowery all took part in Sunday’s ATX screening and panel.
Parsons died in 1952 at the age of 37 after a home lab explosion. At that point, his beliefs had made him a bit of an outcast, and his role in creating the modern rocket was mostly forgotten.
“Early on when I pitched the show I said this guy is a larger than life character,” Heyman said. “He lived an incredible life. The imagination that he had about his life was probably much bigger and bolder than the reality. So I wanted to do justice to what Jack Parsons thought his life was, to try to make it as extraordinary and bombastic and vivid and he would have wanted it to be.”
JPL mostly ignores Parsons’ legacy, and wasn’t eager to participate in “Strange Angel,” Heyman said.
“JPL gives public tours all the time but when we asked for a private tour we were denied,” he noted. “JPL as it exists now is nothing like the one that Jack Parsons knew.”
“Strange Angel” premieres Thursday, June 14 on CBS All Access.