Despite creator Joss Whedon’s mid-production exit in November – during an ongoing investigation into his behaviour while filming Justice League – HBO has forged ahead with new fantasy drama The Nevers. Sadly though, its steampunk-flavoured battle of good and evil is mostly tedious.
Plot-wise, its fairly standard sci-fi. A UFO releases luminous particles into the atmosphere during Victorian times, which give hundreds of unsuspecting women special powers (or “turns”) including foresight, rapid growth and the ability to manipulate fire. Known as the “Touched”, these gifted individuals are shunned by society – which labels them “afflicted” or “deformed”. Each woman is forced to wear a blue bow at work, reminiscent of the way Jews were identified in Nazi Germany.
Much of the action pivots around Laura Donnelly’s Amalia True, the self-destructive leader of the Touched with an alcohol problem. Living alongside her fellow outsiders in the sanctuary of St. Romaulda’s Orphanage, Amalia could be considered this universe’s Wolverine – their digs being the X-Mansion – and it’s her scenes opposite genius inventor Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) that stop The Nevers from feeling completely flat.
The plight of the Touched is a tricky one: not only do they pose a threat to the British Empire, but they’re also at odds with one another thanks to the homicidal Maladie (Amy Manson), whose murder spree gives her powerful sisters a bad reputation. Unlikeable posh blokes like Lord Massen (Pip Torrens) are disgusted by their existence and consider them terrorists in waiting – but slow things down. Massen’s dialogue is particularly vapid – Whedon dedicates an entire scene to a debate on the difference between “employee” and “employed” – but much of the script offers similar nonsense. The fast-paced wordplay of Whedon’s earlier projects (Buffy, The Avengers) seems a distant memory.
Elsewhere, Nick Frost’s brutish crime lord Declan Orrun – for no apparent reason called “The Beggar King” – operates from the shadows. It’s great to see Frost flex his dramatic chops, but the British funnyman’s performance is too hammy to fit in here.
Similarly to Orlando Bloom’s fairy-detective noir Carnival Row, 19th century smog envelops The Nevers. Hi-tech tweaks (vehicles and weapons mostly) are supposed to modernise its aesthetic. but instead they cheapen it. HBO epics are opulent creatures, yet here the production values feel more on the level of Doctor Who or noughties space Western Firefly. The latter, another of Whedon’s cult classics, was cancelled after just 11 episodes – and his newest effort should head the same way.
‘The Nevers’ premieres April 11 on HBO in the US, May 17 on Sky Atlantic in the UK