Mysteries are set up in fast succession. Who is kidnapping The Touched and conducting cruel live experiments on them? What drives Maladie (Amy Manson), the Touched asylum patient turned serial killer? What role will blackmail-based sex club The Ferryman’s, run by the debauched Lord Swann (James Norton) play? And why does nobody seem to remember the golden angelfish-shaped ship that dished out the powers?
Ass-kicking, future-seeing action widow Mrs Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) is another mystery. Along with inventor Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), she’s part of the energising double act who go around London retrieving the Touched and bringing them back to an orphanage owned by philanthropist Lavinia Bidwell (Olivia Williams). Behind the orphanage’s utopian walls, the Touched are accepted for their differences and part of a chosen family.
Miss Adair and Mrs True are a fun pair; Penance brings the steampunk gadgets, Amalia brings the noise. A caustic voice for the voiceless, Mrs True also brings the curt dressing downs to bigots who see The Touched as inhuman. She’s the chief mouthpiece for the show’s social commentary, which is worn very much on its puffed sleeve. Wherein lies the problem.
A major weakness of The Nevers is that everything feels in service of theme and not character. That theme, in case you dodged it in episode one, is society’s treatment of the outsider. An otherwise charming cast is done a disservice by dialogue and characterisation that’s here to stage a debate rather than a human drama. Pip Torrens (Poldark) plays Lord Massen, for example, a walking symbol of the status quo who declaims against the Touched, women, immigrants and ‘deviants’. The Touched therefore become a catch-all stand-in for any marginalised group oppressed by power and seen to threaten the social hierarchy.
Such unspecificity might work for a younger audience less likely to have seen it all before, but for adults, for fantasy fans well-versed in this kind of allegory, what’s being added? If you’ve ever wanted more corsetry and parasols in your X-Men, then you’re in luck, but if not, what The Nevers has to say is unlikely to blow your mind.
Which brings us back the question of who The Nevers is for. When HBO gave it a straight-to-series order back in 2018, it was obvious: Joss Whedon fans. People who, like me, had grown up on Buffy and Firefly and tried our damnedest with Dollhouse. Here was our next iteration of the Whedonverse: an enclave of kickass women, witty one-liners, and an overarching message of weirdos-unite empowerment.