Monday 19 April 2021

Victorian X-Men in HBO's The Nevers

The Nevers, currently streaming on HBO Max, marks the return of Joss Whedon (The Avengers), which is marred in controversy.

Is it a televisual triumph like Whedon's previous series Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly? Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, goes in search of the supernatural in Victorian times.

Guest post by Nick Smith

1890s England was full of grime, poverty and danger. Queen Victoria ruled with an iron will. Children swept chimneys and cried a lot. Life was short. The only people regarded as truly special were the rich and well to do, the aristocrats and industry magnates. Everyone else hoped for a better tomorrow in a new century. The Church offered optimism; above its steeples, the skybound solace of heaven beckoned. If congregations couldn’t be graced with money or breeding, they could be touched by an angel.

Religious concerns are not foremost in The Nevers, created by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly). Ironically, it’s streaming on HBO Max alongside Zack Snyder’s Justice League and The New Mutants.

Snyder’s Justice League is considered superior to the more light-hearted, PG-13 version of the film that Whedon got embroiled in. New Mutants is about a school for gifted youngsters, not unlike the gladiator training grounds of old, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Umbrella Academy, or Miss True’s orphanage in The Nevers.

All the above feature a motley bunch of exceptional youths thrust together, similar in their differences from ‘normal’ people.

The Nevers differs in its setting, eschewing the grit and desperation of Dickensian London for optimism. This is a place of wonders such as a new kettle that whistles when its water boils, new French words entering the English vocabulary, new modes of transport (motor cars are rare). Along with the sense of wonder, we’re reminded that the Londoners of the time were new to scientific learning and quick to fear what they didn’t understand.

Rather than have women strive on their own merits, the Nevers are underdog heroes who have been ‘touched,’ given magical powers from above. This adventure-packed version of our world has an Erich von Daniken slant, suggesting that humankind isn’t capable of great inventions, feats of engineering or leaps of imagination by itself.

Nevertheless, Whedon, who wrote and directed the pilot episode, has made a show that appeals to viewers who don’t watch Ancient Aliens or superhero shows, just as Buffy appealed to those who weren’t all that into horror tropes.

Will the new-fangled, burgeoning 20th Century bring more technology, more ugly opponents and more superheroes – er – touched people? Does the show have enough potential tales to fill more than its initial 12 episodes?

The Nevers is intriguing, and the central cast of Baker Street Very Irregulars are likeable. We don’t know what all their powers are yet and there are a few mysteries left unsolved. These unanswered questions make The Nevers worth watching, not least to see Whedon’s slick modern style taking a history trip to Old Blighty.

The Nevers is currently streaming exclusively on HBO Max and begins on Sky Atlantic on 17th May.

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