If you ever wondered what it would look like if Derren Brown was put in charge of X Men, The Nevers (Sky Atlantic) will put your mind at ease. Written by the Buffy creator Joss Whedon, this new six-part HBO drama takes the misfit-superhero dynamic and sets it in a lavishly realised Victorian London. Themes of alienation and acceptance unfold amid horse-drawn chases, expensive special effects, high-society orgies, corset brawls, and wainscotting aplenty. If it sounds like too much of a good thing, you’re not altogether wrong.
In the last years of the 19th century, a mysterious supernatural event, revealed at the end of this first episode, has bestowed special gifts on a small number of the population. They call themselves “touched” but less sympathetic voices call them “afflicted”. In a 19th-century London dominated by severe old white men, those endowed with these powers are more representative of the world TV producers want to see in 2021: a diverse bunch, and mostly women. Instead of Professor Xavier’s mutant academy, there’s an orphanage for the touched run by Amalia True (Laura Donnelly), with help from her pal Penance Adair (Ann Skelly). True’s power is being able to see snatches of the future, which makes her confident in conversation as well as in a scrap. Penance can harness electrical energy, a power she uses to create all kinds of outlandish inventions: a prototype car, a self-driving carriage, and various ornate grenades.
It is not always immediately apparent how useful some of the other gifts, known as “turns”, are. Several seem inconvenient. In the opening moments, Amalia and Penance rescue Myrtle (Viola Prettejohn), who’s able to speak in a mix of Russian and Chinese. Primrose (Anna Devlin) is just tall. We hear of another woman who is able to float, but only an inch or so off the ground. Horatio Cousens (Zackary Momoh), who has healing powers, is a more helpful member of the team.
There is no shortage of people who want to harness the new powers for their own means, nefarious or otherwise. There’s the government, represented by the flinty minister Lord Massen (Pip Torrens); the wealthy Bidlow family, ruled by Lavinia (Olivia Williams); not forgetting a gang leader, The Beggar King (Nick Frost); a Wildean priapic dandy called Hugo Swann (James Norton), who has a fondness for extortion; and a touched serial killer called Maladie (Amy Manson).
There is plenty to look at, and at its best, The Nevers offers flashes of the lively dialogue that elevated Whedon’s best work, on Buffy or Firefly, by giving its supernatural shenanigans a droll lightness of spirit. With such an enormous toy box to play around with, however, this first episode ends up being an overstuffed junk shop of ideas, characters, plots, special effects and action sequences. The enthusiasm comes at the expense of developing any of the characters beyond their immediate impact. The dynamic between the two leads is promising. Despite their advantages, they must still put up with being young women in a male-dominated world. But the relationship is hardly given space to breathe amid all the plotting and exposition.
The series’ release has been overshadowed by real-life revelations about Whedon’s historic behaviour towards cast and crew. HBO replaced him as showrunner as fast as they could, but the damage was done. It’s especially unfortunate given The Nevers’ feminist overtones, but if it puts people off, the programme itself doesn’t help itself by failing to provide much in the way of discernible story. The controversy speaks to another of The Nevers’ themes, and a recurring fixation of Whedon’s scripts: the relationship between power and responsibility. It’s relevant to showrunners, as well as the plucky young women they depict who take on the forces of darkness.