The Nevers (Sky Atlantic) is a mess, within and without. Without, there were the massing 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, supported by others). He departed the production after helming the first six of 10 episodes, citing personal reasons arising from the pandemic, and was replaced as showrunner by Philippa Goslett. His name has been conspicuous by its absence on the publicity material for the show, but he is on the credits as not just the creator but the director of three episodes, writer of the pilot, and executive producer of the sextet.
Within – goodness, where to begin? A lot happens in The Nevers. A lot. The central conceit is that in 1896, three years before the story really gets going, an alien ship swept over London – possibly England, possibly everywhere, depending on the budget – scattering points of light that landed on some people, mainly women and girls, and gave them special powers. Some of decidedly more use than others, but we’ll get to that. They have become known as “the Touched”.
Two of the Touched, Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), now run St Ramaulda’s orphanage to offer succour to their ilk, who are treated by society with suspicion at best and violence at worst. Amalia can see “ripples” of the future and has decidedly unVictorian, unladylike fighting skills. Penance can see the movement of energy round the universe, which helps her construct an endless series of Heath Robinsonesque inventions that get them out of at least seven tight spots an episode. The orphanage is backed by a wealthy spinster, Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), who might be motivated by altruism. But there are a lot of subplots that need anchoring, and you don’t leave a talent like Williams with nothing to do but smile at fundraising soirees for long.
Those subplots include, but are not limited to: a police detective and former boxing legend Frank Mundi (Ben Chaplin) in pursuit of a serial-killer Touched called Maladie (Amy Manson, playing mad in a steampunk-fantasy milieu with no more than the necessary amount of ham); a gang of burlap-masked kidnappers roaming the streets; a demented scientist experimenting on Touched bodies and brains; an underground sex club run by debauched aristocrat Hugo Swan (James Norton, slightly cringemaking but I’m glad he’s having fun) with blackmail material on everyone. Plus, an ordinary crime gang headed by the Beggar King (Nick Frost) who may be trading information about the Touched while also selling information about anti-Touched entities to Amalia. There is also Lord Massen (Pip Torrens), who either knows or is paranoically convinced that the Touched are the avatars of a malevolent, anti-imperial force who ingeniously “came at us through our women”. He can often be found sitting round a table with the patriarchy, discussing how the prime minister should be made to deal with these newly powerful creatures.
Their paths cross, characters connect or hint at connections past (or sometimes future, if you’re Amalia), and sometimes a patch of coherent plot begins to reveal itself but is soon broken up by another fight or sex scene, or a new girl at the door with an even odder “turn”. There are numerous broken thematic threads, their ends flapping in the breeze as another twist skids in from the wings, desperate for someone – maybe Goslett in the final four hours, though they have yet to receive a transmission date – to tie them together. Whedon, once the master of it (as the first six seasons of Buffy will forever attest, whatever reputation damage accrues to their creator) cannot follow through on his metaphors. A marginalised group – Victorian women – are becoming powerful. Those in power don’t like it. How would that play out? 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 think about how a stigmatised group rallies, the power of unity and (mirrored more prosaically by men labouring for Massen) unionisation – but we are not taken further down the road.
Mess can be fun and, viewed as a steampunky romp, The Nevers is that. Long stretches could be Enola Holmes for grownups or Penny Dreadful for children. But it could – tightened and focused – be so much more. Philippa Goslett, it’s over to you. Can yet another woman clear up yet another man’s mess?