It’s August 3, 1896, in London, and Victorian women are doing Victorian things. A damsel with a bread basket throws herself into the Thames, another jury-rigs a water pump with a clothespin.
Elsewhere, a woman who must belong in an asylum, otherwise why would her hair be so ratty, is being escorted to an asylum. Somewhere, there’s a lady in a mahogany wheelchair. They all look up at the shared gray sky. Who are they? It’s completely unclear. What do they see? Who knows. Welcome to Joss Whedon’s The Nevers, a highly imaginative steampunk sci-fi adventure that’s even more confusing than it is imaginative.
Except it’s not Joss Whedon’s show anymore. In November, 18 months after filming started and three months before Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Charisma Carpenter would publicly accuse her old boss of verbal abuse, Whedon stepped down as showrunner. He cited exhaustion after a year of “unprecedented challenges.” Those challenges included a production shutdown by COVID-19, but also quieter accusations of workplace misconduct by Justice League actor Ray Fisher. After Carpenter came forward with her story — among other named behaviors, the Buffy creator called the pregnant actress “fat” and berated her over a religious tattoo — several of her co-stars, including Sarah Michelle Gellar, supported her.
Still, despite a change of hands, this pilot belongs to Whedon; he’s credited as creator, writer, producer, and director. So it’s his fault that the episode is overcrowded with characters and often too far ahead of its audience. After the inexplicable opening montage, we fast-forward three years from the day that … what happened, exactly? Some people saw the sky? Now, the woman who jumped in the river — our protagonist, the widow Amalia True (Outlander’s Laura Donnelly) — is sleeping on the floor. (Why?) The woman who fixed the pump — Robin to Amalia’s Batman, the inventress Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) — spot-cleans her pits in her laboratory sink. It’s a full five minutes before a single character utters anything other than “Hello.”
The set, though, is rich with information. Amalia and Penance walk through the iron gates of Saint Romaulda’s Orphanage (not a real saint), where they live and work, carrying frilly umbrellas even though it doesn’t look like rain, and march into a city that is teeming with dust. A newsie hollers that the serial killer Maladie remains on the loose after claiming her fifth victim. Jack the Ripper, who also took five lives, is still fresh in this London’s memory. It’s the London of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The Victorians were pious and prude, but they read science fiction. They invented evolutionary biology and the X-ray. Which is to say, The Nevers is set against a moment of tremendous upheaval — a time of blossoming belief in the impossible.
Amalia and Penance belong to a class of Londoners, mostly women, known as “the touched,” who are described across the episode in cagey euphemism. The touched can do “tricks,” but in most cases, the “strangeness” resembles a low-key superpower. Amalia, for example, experiences “ripplings” — uncontrollable glimpses into the future. Penance can visualize and predict the flow of electricity. When we meet them, the pair are off to visit a teenage girl, Myrtle, who spontaneously finds herself polylingual, a “turn” her devout mother mistakes for Bellsybabble. Amalia and Penance invite Myrtle to join them at the orphanage, which specializes in the care and protection of the touched.
And the touched, they are in need of protection. There’s a mad Doctor Mengele character (Denis O’Hare) kidnapping them so he can drill into their altered brains. When his brutes come for Myrtle, Amalia fends them off with that frilly umbrella, which turns out to be a Taser wand. (Penance is Amalia’s Robin, but she’s also Lucius Fox.) The touched are victims of hate crimes, including murder. They’re accused of witchcraft. More commonly, the touched are disowned by their families. The lucky ones end up at St. Romaulda’s.
The question of what society should do about the touched animates most of the episode’s dialogue, which is zippy in the style of Whedon. In a smoke-filled back room, men of import debate what stance the prime minister should take on his gifted citizens. Cue the misogyny. Are the hundreds of touched who’ve come forward with their abilities just a “few women pulling parlor tricks” or an existential threat to the order of the Empire? Ultimately, Lord Massen (Pip Torrens), staunchly anti-touched for reasons that purportedly have something to do with how long he’s spent fighting the Boers, wins the room. The touched are an attack on the fabric of society at its most vulnerable point: “It came at us through our women,” he says ruefully. If women feel empowered, what next? He leaves us to imagine the horrors for ourselves.
Not all of high society agrees with Massen. The heiress Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams, a Dollhouse alum) — whom you may recognize as the montage woman in the wheelchair but likely won’t because she’ll be the zillionth character you meet — has “made a cause of them,” kindly endowing St. Romaulda’s for their safe haven but also marking them out as capital-O Other. In one ugly conversation about where the touched fit into the social hierarchy, Lavinia invites Amalia to share her turn with the bigoted Massen, like she’s a curiosity in Lavinia’s freaky menagerie. The question of what exactly the orphanage is we’ll surely come back to. On its face, St. Romaulda’s is a refuge for the needy, but with Penance tinkering away at new weapons and a teenage giant called Primrose hanging out in the courtyard, it also has a whiff of the Avengers Compound to it.
And yet these physical/political/social threats are not the immediate problem Amalia’s facing. That’s Maladie, who’s correctly rumored to be touched and whose rampage is inciting more anti-touched backlash throughout the city. Dressed like an Act IV Ophelia and mumbling like Buffy’s Drusilla, she kidnaps a touched opera star, Mary, who sings in a register that only the touched can hear (to viewers at home, her song sounds like auto-tuned ad-libbing). In the episode’s Big Fight Scene, Amalia faces off against Maladie but loses. Mary is gone. If you’ve been searching for some reason why The Nevers picks up its story on this particular day, this is maybe the best bet. Her song didn’t just reveal the touched to each other, but soothed them after years of loneliness and fear. It’s a new beginning of sorts. Kind of?
The story scale of The Nevers may send you searching for the source material (which doesn’t exist — this is a Whedon original), but The Nevers suffers from its own ambition, too. There are too many subplots, including a delightful burst of havoc from James Norton as a gadabout opening a sex club for the super-rich. Almost every named character seems to have at least one gigantic secret. The Nevers is not a show that gradually reveals its world to you, but one that expects you to hang on to its every fast-delivered word. I’ve watched the pilot three times, and I’m sure I missed shit.
Three times through, though, the main joy of the show is watching Amalia True and Penance Adair onscreen at the same time. Amalia is forthright and caustic, while Penance is more soft-spoken, both admonishing of Amalia and admiring. The Buffy-and-Willow energy between the Irish actresses who play them is strong. And, as Whedon did for the slayer, he saves his slickest nonsense for Mrs. True. When a bruiser threatens to slice her face, Amalia leans chaotically into the blade. “This isn’t my face,” she says. What does it mean? Completely unclear! But it’s menacing as hell.
If the touched are a metaphor for any out-groups, then what to make of their enemies? Is it the doctor performing experiments on the touched who is most evil, or Maladie, who turns on her own kind? What about Lord Massen, who with his potent mix of prejudice and political capital seems hardest to vanquish? Let us not forget the disgraced Whedon, who bafflingly takes his heroine down to her petticoat for the episode’s super-fight, giving the face-off between light and shadow a Jell-O wrestling-tournament air. (For what it’s worth, so far The Nevers’ cast has only been positive about working with Whedon, with Donnelly saying he was “protective” of the actors.)
Whedon bookends the forward action with an alternate version of the opening montage. This time, we get to see the sky as a crystalline UFO emits glowing exhaust that lands on the characters we now know to be touched: Amalia mid-suicide attempt; Penance pumping water; Maladie’s bad hair. Then, the spacecraft clears the skies. No one seems to remember it was ever there. So some alien race made the touched? The touched are an alien race? It’s half an answer to a question you weren’t really wondering about.
Still, the world of The Nevers has intriguing depth and the big questions it’s asking are interesting, if not altogether original: How does society respond to an ascendant class? And what are the least vulnerable people in society willing to do to preserve the existing order?