The Nevers (Sky Atlantic) is a mess, inside and out. Without, there were the massive allegations against its creator Joss Whedon of bullying, verbal and misogynistic abuse, and toxicity on his sets (first from Justice League’s Ray Fisher and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Charisma Carpenter, backed by d ‘other). He left production after directing the first six of 10 episodes, citing personal reasons stemming from the pandemic, and was replaced as showrunner by Philippa Goslett. His name was notable for its absence from the show’s publicity material, but he is in the credits not only as creator but also director of three episodes, writer of the pilot and executive producer of the sextet.
Inside – goodness, where to start? There is a lot going on in Nevers. A lot. The central vanity is that in 1896, three years before the story really begins, an alien ship swept through London – maybe England, maybe everywhere, on budget – scattering points of light that have landed on certain people, mostly women and girls, and gave them special powers. Some are decidedly more useful than others, but we’ll get to that. They became known as “Les Touchés”.
Two of the Affected, Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), now run the St Ramaulda Orphanage to offer relief to their fellow human beings, who are treated by society with suspicion at best and violent at worst. Amalia can see the “ripples” of the future and possesses decidedly non-Victorian and un-feminine fighting skills. Penance can see the movement of energy around the universe, which helps him build an endless series of Heath Robinsonesque inventions that take them out at least seven difficult points per episode. The orphanage is supported by a wealthy bachelor, Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), who may be motivated by selflessness. But there are a lot of subplots that need to be anchored, and you don’t leave a talent like Williams with nothing to do but smile at fundraising parties for a long time.
These subplots include, but are not limited to: a police detective and former boxing legend Frank Mundi (Ben Chaplin) chasing a Touched serial killer called Sickness (Amy Manson, playing mad in a medium steampunk-fantasy with nothing more than the necessary amount of ham); a band of kidnappers masked in burlap roaming the streets; a demented scientist experimenting on affected bodies and brains; an underground sex club run by debauched aristocrat Hugo Swan (James Norton, a little cringemaking but glad he’s having fun) with blackmail material on everyone. Additionally, an ordinary crime gang led by the Beggar King (Nick Frost) who can exchange information about the Hit while also selling information about the anti-Hit entities to Amalia. There is also Lord Massen (Pip Torrens), who knows or is paranoidally convinced that the Affected are the avatars of a malevolent and anti-imperial force which “has come upon us ingeniously through our women”. He is often found sitting around a table with the Patriarchy, discussing how the Prime Minister should be brought to deal with these newly powerful creatures.
Their paths cross, the characters connect or hint at past (or sometimes future, if you’re Amalia) connections, and sometimes a cohesive piece of plot begins to unfold but is quickly interrupted by another fight scene or sex, or a new girl. at the door with an even stranger “turn”. There are many broken thematic threads, their ends flapping in the breeze as another twist slips off the wings, desperate for someone – maybe Goslett in the past four hours, though they haven’t yet. received from date of transmission – to tie them together. Whedon, once master of it (as Buffy’s first six seasons will forever attest, no matter how much reputation damage their creator suffers) cannot follow his metaphors. A marginalized group – the Victorian women – becomes powerful. Those in power don’t like it. How would that be? When Penance invents an amplifier for a Touched, who can draw others to her by singing, to perform in the park, we are invited to reflect on how a stigmatized group comes together, the power of unity and (reflected more prosaically by the men who work for Massen) unionization – but we are not pushed further down the road.
Mess can be fun, and considered a steampunky game, The Nevers is it. Long stretches could be Enola Holmes for adults or Penny Dreadful for children. But it could – narrowed and targeted – be much more. Philippa Goslett, over to you. Can another woman still eliminate another man’s mess?