‘The Nevers’: Joss Whedon Plagiarizes Himself

It’s the same old super-story, plus steampunk

James Baldwin once said that every writer has only one story to tell, and the writer’s job is to tell that story over and over until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer. The Nevers, airing now on HBO, doesn’t have a clear meaning, but it is the same story Joss Whedon has been telling since his WB days. Whedon fully represents elements of his hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, cult favorite Firefly, and last foray into television Dollhouse, almost to the point of self-plagiarism.

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Whedon, who stepped away from his role as the writer, director, executive producer and showrunner for HBO’s newest Sunday show before it premiered, didn’t write or direct the whole series, but his influence looms over the show. Credits show Whedon responsible for writing five and directing three of the first season’s initial six episodes; HBO has said it will release the remainder of the first season at a later date. Whedon left the show in Nov. 2020, citing “the physical challenges of making such a huge show during a global pandemic” as the reason for his departure. He has also come under fire as of late for various forms of workplace harassment and toxicity.

After the first two episodes, it seems like the big goal for The Nevers is just to remix Whedon’s past shows in a steampunk mad lib with X-Men and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There’s a lot of plot, but not a lot of story.

That plot, as it currently stands, is a little convoluted:

In this version of Victorian England, a group of people known as “The Touched” emerge in 1896 after a freak event where some kind of alien ship shaped like a fish spreads fairy dust all over London. Some walked away from the event with certain gifts, called “turns.” This phenomenon specifically affects women, as well as the occasional man. 

Each Touched person’s turn is different, and there’s not much explanation as to why certain people get the skills they do (although one doctor suddenly, conveniently has the ability to heal people with his hands). Other turns include things like supersize, superstrengh, the ability to understand multiple languages, the ability to grow plants by merely touching soil, and the ability to physically see potential energy sources. 

Society has come to fear these women, so Professor X Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) takes them at the Dollhouse St. Romaulda’s Orphanage, where she keeps them safe and allows to grow their various skills.

But society also fetishizes The Touched. While members of Parliament want to eradicate the Touched, some like aristocrat Hugo Swan (James Norton) wish to make money off of them by including them in his clandestine sex party club.

Oh, and there’s also Maladie (Amy Manson), a Touched person who’s gone rogue and is killing other Touched people. Detective Frank Mundi (Ben Chaplin), who is investigating those crimes, is also involved in Swan’s sex club.

Amalia and her friend Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), The Nevers’ Buffy/Willow pairing, are also busy dealing with a mob boss known as the Beggar King (Nick Frost), who helps them find more Touched to recruit to the orphanage.

To top it all off, there’s a mad scientist who kidnaps the Touched to experiment on them, and the orphanage’s wealthy benefactor Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams) is up to something nefarious, but we don’t know what that is yet.

All of that plot, most of which happens in the show’s pilot episode, is intriguing, but it leaves little room to explore who these characters actually are. We haven’t learned much about the interiority of the Touched, or how they feel about suddenly being bestowed with random unexplained gifts. I’m reminded of how one character quippily described Pietro and Wanda Maximoff and Pietro in Age of Ultron, another Whedon-penned genre outing: “He’s fast and she’s weird.” That’s about as much characterization we have so far: Amalia has Buffy-like super strength, Dr. Horatio Cousens can heal people with his hands, and Penance can manipulate energy sources.

That’s not to say The Nevers lacks charm. Its deliberate outlandishness is a breath of fresh air and the Victorian-era setting is a great way to frame this type of story away from modern technology. Certain dialogue exchanges, like a full scene about speaking the formal Queen’s English instead of using new slang like “nice,” is Whedon at his most Whedonian.

Then there’s the matter of if Whedon is still as much of a household name as he once was now that his workplace accusations have come to light. The numbers would indicate as much. HBO says its premiere date numbers of “just over” 1.4 million viewers via its on-air premiere, two replays on HBO and streaming on HBO Max, set a streaming record for the platform.

But whether Whedon’s first return to television since Dollhouse can rise to the occasion to become more than a Whedon reference book is another story.

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

One thought on “‘The Nevers’: Joss Whedon Plagiarizes Himself

  • May 19, 2021 at 10:50 am
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    That James Baldwin quote you refer to at the beginning of this smart review is so beautiful and profound it’s worth sharing in full: “Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger, more and more precise, more and more reverberating.”

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