David Lowery’s next directorial project — following his low budget existential epic A Ghost Story — is a TV series about a figure who was just as singular as Lowery’s last movie (in which Rooney Mara eats pie for five minutes while a sheet-covered Casey Affleck watches and somehow it all adds up to something unshakably moving). The series, created by Black Swan writer Mark Heyman, is all about Jack Parsons (née John Whiteside Parsons). It’s a name that, if a) you’re from L.A., or b) know a lot about rocket science, c) 1930s/40s occultist movements, or d) L. Ron Hubbard, will likely ring a bell.
Jack Parsons’ pioneering efforts in rocket science ultimately led to his co-founding the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the outskirts of Pasadena, CA. As George Pendle, who wrote the book on which this series is based, explains in Motherboard, “JPL is not part of some Joss Whedon-esque occult-industrial complex. It does not mingle science with the supernatural. Yet one of its founders did.”
When Parsons died in 1952 at the young age of 37 in a chemical explosion, newspapers particularly focused on some of the odder elements of his history: notably, that it seemed like he wanted to fuse technology and the particulars of his spiritualism. Beyond the aspects of Parson’s life that spark cultural amusement (and maybe a bit of fear), he also happened to be among the key figures paving the way for space travel. But of course the more bizarre and salacious components of his story are the types of things that could make for excellent television: and so, yes, Parsons was very actively involved in Ordo Templi Orientis, the society led by Aleister Crowley, founder of the libertarian-adjacent religion Thelema, and proponent of “sex magick.” This magick manifested in orgiastic “Gnostic Masses,” wherein, incidentally, cakes made from menstrual blood were consumed. Eventually, Parsons became the society’s West Coast leader, and held massive parties at his mansion that was dubbed the Parsonage.
Not entirely dissimilar to Elon Musk, who’s been known to be interested in breaking from the simulated reality in which we humans currently reside, his successes in the joining of science and business also led him to postulate on more existentially radical abilities. Motherboard quotes a letter from him to another member of OTO:
It has seemed to me that if I had the genius to found the jet propulsion field in the US, and found a multi-million dollar corporation and a world renowned research laboratory, then I should also be able to apply this genius in the magical field.
When some of Parsons’ more unruly professional characteristics were seen as a security threat, he was bought out of Aerojet, the company he created, and expelled from JPL. He began to drop his focus on rockets and move more fervently into magic-centricity — to a point that even made some members of the OTO worried. But therein, he became the perfect friend to the sci-fi novelist who’d develop a penchant for monetizing odd tales as expensive religions: L. Ron Hubbard. The soon-to-be Scientology founder moved into Parsons’ mansion, and the two embarked on a quest to manifest a goddess on earth (they called this the Babylon Working, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it involved a lot of masturbation). Though, seemingly Hubbard was not to be trusted with one’s money or hypothetical Goddesses: he ended up stealing away with funds Parsons had invested in a joint business venture, leading the once-wealthy and influential scientist into a financial decline, culminating with him having to repair cars and pump gas to make money.
So, yeah, it’s sort of astonishing that this hasn’t been made into a series yet, which brings us back to the Lowery project. According to Indiewire, CBS All Access announced at the Television Critics Association press tour that the series is titled Strange Angel, the same as Pendle’s book. Which part of Parsons’ crazy, ripe-for-TV-adaptation history Heyman will decide to focus on remains to be seen. But honestly, I’d watch any of it.