[SPOILER ALERT: Given the nature of this TV series (and its inherent foundational mysteries), almost the entirety of this review is a spoiler. So if you have not seen the series, and plan to, do not read this review at all. LOL. This review covers five of the first six episodes of the series.]
Sometime in the waning years of the 19th century, an elegant alien spaceship glides slowly and quietly over London. As it passes, it gently rains down tiny "bulbs" of light. Some of these bulbs enter and remain in the bodies of people (mostly girls and women), giving them a variety of powers: from Superhero/X-Men-type abilities (breath that can turn anything to ice; a touch that can make any material shatter; a touch that can levitate any object; creation and control of fire or electricity) to "mental" abilities (vast increase in intelligence; ability to invent things seemingly at will) to even weirder things like physical size (one young girl is 10 feet tall), the ability to walk on water, and a bizarre form of glossolalia, in which a girl speaks in multiple languages (sometimes all at once), but no one can understand her. (My favorite is a woman whose mere presence acts like a kind of truth serum, getting people to happily share their most intimate secrets.) Those who receive these abilities are eventually labeled "The Touched," and are viewed with wonder, suspicion, or fear.
An extremely wealthy, sympathetic, wheelchair-bound widow (Lavinia Bidlow) opens a compound for them just outside the city so they can live without harassment. She puts the running of the compound in the hands of two women: Amalia True (enhanced combat abilities, and the ability to see the future, but only in the short-term, and only in sudden bursts), a brilliant and somewhat hard and aloof (but not unkind) woman, and her partner, Penance Adair (control of electricity, ability to invent), a quieter, more pious woman. Like two sides of the same coin, they complement each other perfectly, and have each others' complete trust and confidence.
Also in the mix are a small group of bad Touched, most of whom work for the Beggar King, a sort of uber-Fagin who controls the streets (and criminal activity); Lord Massen, a cold, hard ex-military man, who represents the ruling class and sees the Touched as not simply dangerous, but as a direct threat to the Empire; Hugo Swan, a member of the House of Lords, and a pansexual dandy who runs an underground club catering to the aristocracy, using Touched women as sexual "entertainment" (though not in a cruel or forced manner); Lavinia Bidlow's younger brother, Augie, who is, secretly, Touched (ability to control birds, mostly crows, including using them as living drones for spying, etc.); Inspector Frank Mundi, a former boxer and now Chief of Detectives, a no-nonsense man whose former wife was Touched, and who sang an unintelligible song that could both calm people and also identify Touched people, including to each other; and a variety of aristocrats and thugs. Also very much in the mix is a Touched woman named Maladie, a scary and dangerous sociopath, whose powers seem to be persuasion (particularly to do evil) and possibly near-immortality (pain only makes her stronger, and attempts to kill her, including by hanging, have failed).
As the various individuals and groups negotiate this new world and each other, situations and conflicts arise, leading to alliances, betrayals, and deaths. The one constant is that no one -- including the Touched themselves -- seems to know who the "aliens" were (though it seems that part of their ship crashed near London and is being secretly investigated by Ms. Bidlow and a private team of non-Touched people), or why these powers were given at all, especially mostly to women. Lord Massen sees it as a plot, the Beggar King and Lord Swan see it as an opportunity, and the Touched themselves experience it mostly as trouble (with some obvious benefits).
Among the broader issues involved are class and gender -- women are still second-class citizens, after all, which is one reason why Lord Massen is particularly suspicious that the powers were given primarily to women. But the most obvious -- made more so in some of the details -- is the idea of the Touched as "the other," particularly in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) comparisons to the Jews. (At one point, a group of them is made to wear blue ribbons to identify themselves.) All of this makes for some occasionally heady and thought-provoking (and uncomfortable) moments.
The production values of the series are fabulous: from costumes to set/scenic design, from period details to set pieces, not a hair is out of place. The writing is also extremely good, and the direction has been perfect: despite several threads occurring at once, one never loses any of them or gets confused.
But it is the writing and development of the characters, and the acting, that really make this series sing. Despite having only six one-hour episodes, every character is fully-formed. There is no skimping here; even without much back story (since, in some cases, it would give away the game, or at least take away some of the mysteries as they unfold), even secondary characters come to life. And with the amazing Laura Donnelly (Amalia True) and the brilliantly understated Ann Skelly (Penance Adair) at its center, the acting is arguably even better than the material (which is nevertheless always absorbing). Also of note are Amy Manson (Maladie), James Norton (Hugo Swan), Ben Chaplin (Detective Mundi), Tom Riley (Augie Bidlow) and Pip Torrens (Lord Massen), all of whom help lift this series to a very high level.
I have only covered the first five episodes, because the sixth and final episode of the first season is an absolute mind-blower, beginning at the end and moving backward to the end of the fifth episode, answering some (but not all) mysteries in its wake, and creating great anticipation for the next season (apparently beginning in the Fall).
There are some clues that have not been explored yet, which I bring up for those who have seen the series, or parts of it.
The biggest one is that those with the special abilities are called "The Touched." Yet the series is called The Nevers, an appellation that is not used at all, and one that does not appear in any of the PR materials, descriptions of the series, or articles about it, except as its title. Hmmm….
Also, there is the overarching question of the aliens' purpose in imbuing (some, certain) people with these powers and abilities. We are not told whether this phenomenon exists anywhere else on the planet, so we must assume for the moment that it is only England. In this regard, Lord Massen's suspicion is just as rational and justified as any other: is it an attempt to undermine the social order of the Empire, conquering it, as it were, from within? Or perhaps the aliens are engaged in an experiment to see whether women would wield power differently from (and better than) men?
I, for one, simply cannot wait for Part II. And this, from someone who famously dislikes period dramas. Yet in this case, I would say, "The Nevers?" Always!