The Watch TV series muddles Terry Pratchett’s Discworld with ‘edgy’ humor

Photo: Ilze Kitshoff / BBCA

[Ed. note: This is an advance review of BBC America’s Terry Pratchett adaptation series The Watch. The series debuts on Sunday, January 3, 2021.]

To bestselling fantasy author Terry Pratchett, there was no such thing as a too-obvious joke. Take his character Constable Carrot (Adam Hugill), a well-meaning young man looking to make his name in law enforcement. Pratchett’s Discworld novels explain that Carrot is human, but was raised by dwarves after his birth parents abandoned him. The joke being, he’s tall for a dwarf, which led to considerable tensions down in the mine. (See also: Will Ferrell in Elf.) It’s a decent gag, and it shows up fairly early on in The Watch, BBC America’s latest take on Pratchett’s work.

But soon after, Carrot meets forensics expert Constable Cheery (Jo Eaton). In this series, she’s about as tall as Carrot, and she’s an actual dwarf. That means Carrot’s size isn’t actually unusual, which ruins the gag. Eaton is fine in the role, and when the creative team decided to cast them, they could’ve easily skipped this particular part of Carrot’s backstory. Instead, they keep both — and while it’s not a major flaw, it’s indicative of a muddled production where the team can’t decide whether they want to adapt Pratchett’s work, riff on it, or just use it for window dressing.

The Watch is wacky. Exhaustingly so, really, full of rapid-fire cuts, incongruous music choices, and a sense of humor that should be familiar to anyone who’s seen an animated movie in the past 10 years. Some of the jokes land, while many of them don’t, but that style feels directly at odds with the series’ source of inspiration. Pratchett’s Discworld novels are the fantasy equivalent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — dry, farcical humor that winks at the audience — except that they have more warmth, better world-building, and a deep, pervasive humanism.

The comedy is broad and clever, with Groucho Marx absurdism sitting cheek-to-jowl with Abbott and Costello slapstick, which fumbles over Swiftian wit. The books’ mix of tones holds together thanks to Pratchett’s clear, comfortable voice and his strong grasp of story and pacing. Very little of his work could be described as self-consciously edgy. The same can’t be said for the show.

Photo: Ilze Kitshoff / BBCA

In and of itself, that isn’t not necessarily a problem. The creative team behind The Watch (written by Simon Allen and produced by Johann Knobel) has made it clear that while the series was “inspired” by Pratchett’s work, it isn’t beholden to it. Given the paucity of strong Pratchett adaptations, this is arguably a sensible approach. It’s just that in their attempt to come up with a new take on familiar material, they repeatedly reference that material without providing any new context or perspective to distinguish their work. What spin The Watch does add is a kind of overly aggressive quirk, a corporate-punk styling that uses faux-edginess as a cover for well-worn tropes and bad storytelling. The pace is zippy enough that watching the show never becomes an active chore, but the charm is almost entirely absent.

Pulling elements from several different books in the series, The Watch’s plot follows Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer) and his motley band of misfits as they attempt to stop a villain from Vimes’ past from destroying the city of Ankh-Morpork. Said villain has a name that should be familiar to Discworld fans, but the Carcer Dun seen here (played by Sam Adewunmi) is a far cry from the nasty sociopath introduced in Pratchett’s Night Watch.

It’s a strange pull: the novel Carcer is a right clever bastard, despicable to a fault and loathsome to boot. The TV-show Carcer barely has any personality at all, sulking through scenes and acting aggrieved before quickly fading into the overly loud background. His backstory with Vimes is presented in awkward flashbacks (introduced via a wholly unnecessary framing device in the first episode) that raises more questions than it asks, and nothing about the character ever rises above basic plot functionality. Bad enough to include a bland antagonist; worse still to name him after a far more interesting one.

The rest of the cast ranges in quality from distracting to good, with Dormer’s Vimes unfortunately falling into the latter camp. It’s hard to know how much to blame the script or the direction for the choices the actor makes here, but his decision to go through every scene with his jaw thrust forward like his skull is trying to escape his face is an odd one. It speaks to a general tendency to overplay the character’s physicality as a sort of Gilliam-level grotesque.

Photo: Ilze Kitshoff / BBCA

That’s a shame, given that Vimes is one of Pratchett’s best characters, a working-class hero whose common sense, decency, and basic humanity have little in common with the grimacing punchline seen here. Few other performances stand out quite so sharply, for good or for ill; the best that can be said about the core ensemble (including Dormer, Hugill, Eaton, Marama Corlett as Angua, and Lara Rossi as Lady Sybil Ramkin) is that it quickly gels into a likeable enough whole.

The show’s version of Ankh-Mopork starts with the source books’ fantasy melting pot and throws on a steampunk gloss for no readily apparent reason. It’s as if the production team decided they really wished they were working on a late-series Doctor Who episode, and decided to build sets and costumes for that instead. Some individual moments and scenes stand out — one highlight finds the heroes pretending to be a band, for reasons; another has them visiting a nursing home with a very specific deterrent against violence. But the city as a whole never coheres, which makes it difficult to see the Watch’s part in all of it. The nominal arc of the group is watching them go from misfits to heroes, but without a clear sense of a community to protect, the story becomes more about them going through the expected motions rather than justifying those motions.

The lack of narrative build is evident in the scripting as well. The Watch repeatedly uses familiar tropes as though simply acknowledging that the trope exists counts as effective character development. An early episode features a major death in an opening scene, immediately followed by characters deciding to use that death as motivation to solve a crime, even though they were already investigating that crime. Then they never mention the death again. (It honestly feels like the character was removed for budget reasons, not story purposes.) There’s no rising action or stakes, and rarely a sense of anything mattering beyond an excuse to get us to the next set-piece. Is it watchable? Sure. Some of the setpieces are fun enough. It’s just a pity that so much work and time — and such a beloved, iconic source series — went into something so pleasantly empty.

The Watch premieres on BBC America on Sunday, January 3, 2021.

Comments

I have to say each new nail in the coffin is heartbreaking all over again. To see them treat my favorite book series of all time with such seeming disdain is…well, it’s a little painful. If they didn’t want it to be Discworld they could have just created their own steampunk IP, instead of shitting all over an established one.

The decision to mix up all the books definitely seems like it’s not the ABSOLUTE worst of this adaptation’s Issues, but it definitely kills any chance of a cohesive story arc if you’re trying to handle Night Watch without any of the build that makes it such a spectacular novel. If you want to do a procedural with the Watch at the later books’ status quo, fine. I don’t blame you for wanting most of your cast established immediately, and straight adaptation has proven pretty difficult. You can get a lot of material out of that. But you can’t start with Night Watch, it’s like opening your A Song of Ice and Fire adaptation with the Red Wedding. Yeah you’re covering the flashy part the fandom loves to talk about, but at the expense of any of the context and rising action that let people care. Also since it sounds like they’re handling that material as flashbacks, they just. Completely missed the point of that book, didn’t they? Not surprising, but deeply disappointing.

(Aside: Given the ‘she’ being used, did they walk back show!Cheery being nonbinary or is that an error by the reviewer?)

I remember Cheery being referred to as female, but I might be misremembering.

You’re remembering correctly. In the Discworld all dwarves are culturally expected to present as male. Cherry is at at forefront of what is basically Dwarven Women’s Lib, a movement of dwarves who want to openly live as women.

Or more realistically all the dwarves present as male to the humans. The dwarves don’t really have an issue telling their women and men apart. Also all the dwarves all have beards regardless of sex. At least in the books, I’m assuming they didn’t do that in the show based on images.

Not really, no. There’s joking references before Cheery’s first appearance about how dwarf courtship involves ‘discreetly figuring out the sex of your partner,’ or something to that effect. The worldbuilding before Cheery’s a bit inconsistent about it, but by the later books it’s a critical plot point that traditionally dwarves had one gender (but plural sexes). Further, it’s a huge dwarven political Thing in the later books (particularly The Fifth Elephant, Thud!, and Raising Steam where dwarf politics are central, but also a significant subplot in Unseen Academicals among others) that other dwarves are following Cheery’s lead and publicly declaring themselves female, and the more traditionalist dwarves finding this scandalous and horrifying to even consider. It’s a major plot point that several dwarven characters are female but not out for various reasons, and that fact is a secret to other dwarves, not just humans. By the last few books the allegory feels like it’s not as much about feminism anymore as it is trans and to a lesser extent gay rights.

They do still have beards even if they’re women, though. But prettier beards. Unseen Academicals’s subplot features a fashion designer specializing in dwarven women’s fashion, which is very much feminine but equally as much dwarven.

The way I read the passage below seems to imply that the character Cheery uses she/her pronouns but actor Jo Eaton uses they/them.

But soon after, Carrot meets forensics expert Constable Cheery (Jo Eaton). In this series, she’s [Cheery] about as tall as Carrot, and she’s [Cheery] an actual dwarf. That means Carrot’s size isn’t actually unusual, which ruins the gag. Eaton is fine in the role, and when the creative team decided to cast them [Eaton], they [creative team] could’ve easily skipped this particular part of Carrot’s backstory.

Ah, okay. Thanks for that!

Why would you think that last "them" refers to just Eaton? It refers to "them, the two actors who are the same height, which ruins the joke", at least, that’s the way I read it.

They them pronouns do get kind of confusing, you must admit. I think this person was doing the best they could, considering.

(Aside: Given the ‘she’ being used, did they walk back show!Cheery being nonbinary or is that an error by the reviewer?)

If the latter, it’s the least of their problems.

that isn’t not necessarily a problem.


from distracting to good, with Dormer’s Vimes unfortunately falling into the latter camp.


as if the production team decided they really wished they were working on a late-series Doctor Who episode, and decided to build sets and costumes for that instead.

Fire your proofreader.

I think there has been a drop off in quality as it moves to a blogger submission style publication. Usually when I see some article like the above, I check the authors post count to get an idea of what’s happened. (In this case, it’s the second article by Zack).

Honestly, I am starting to look for something more "games news" and less "pop culture, politics & games"

I am happy to see the updating to Pratchett’s work. He was a great guy, but his stuff was always "meh" to me. I really liked the updated version of Good Omens. They definitely need an overhaul of his other stuff.

I’d agree for his earlier Discworld stuff. But the later stuff, especially the Watch books, was laser focused on modern day issues and had a very important and human message. The adaptation of Good Omens was a passion project and the work of one of the authors, this project sounds misguided at best. That hurts.

The Moist von Lipwig books are some of his most cutting pieces of satire in the entire Discworld setting, I think.

The postal books were an amazing commentary on modernisation and technological revolution. I don’t know if I found them cutting. They clearly presented the innovations Moist made as positive, as in the post office, steam power and moving banking off the gold standard.

Going Postal, Making Money and Raising Steam are such tightly written books, they are wonderful to read. I’d also put the Watch books from Feet of Clay onward in the same category in the same vein. That’s what makes this series so disgustingly disappointing to me, they had all the source material in the world and blew it to hell.

I’d say the cutting part of Going Postal in particular (and I’d say Making Money as well, to a lesser extent) is the treatment of the antagonists. The investors buying the Trunk out from under the people who actually knew how to run it and wrecking things in a grab for short-term profits is pretty familiar. And Reacher Gilt’s transparency in how he’ll screw everyone over, including his allies? Yeah, that doesn’t feel anywhere near as unbelievable as it should anymore.

As for Making Money… honestly, everything I’ve heard about the modern British nobility makes the Lavishes hating each other but being united in their superiority to the rest of the world by virtue of money sound plausible. Hell, some of the wealthier US industrial dynasties seem to have that dynamic, too.

Haven’t read Raising Steam since my first readthrough, very shortly I think before Pratchett’s death, so I don’t remember that one as well. Last couple years have been rough on my reading habits in general.

(I also tend to group ‘The Truth’ in with the Moist books, since it uses similar themes about industrialism and wealthy villains with that particular strain of superiority. You get the latter in the Watch books as well, of course, but Going Postal comes closest to The Truth’s radical status quo shift in a single book.)

The thing that made Good Omens work (apart from, as Otakusensei says, it being years of work on Neil Gaiman’s part to honor a dear friend) is that it keeps the themes and most of the plot points that made the book so strong. The updates bring it out of the late 80s, but they keep ‘humans are capable of more good and more evil than divine beings could even imagine.’ They keep character arcs intact. The things that were added and not just tweaked (Gabriel, Episode Three spending half its runtime on Aziraphale and Crowley over the millennia,) fit into the themes of the books.

This, uh. Does not sound like that. At all. Like I said, a procedural that uses the characters but doesn’t necessarily adapt any of the books would work, if they kept some essential elements of said characters. (Cheery’s arc is so inextricably tied up in the Dwarf Gender subplot, for instance, that that has to at least be part of the worldbuilding.) A book adaptation that updates things and makes early worldbuilding used mainly as jokes cohere with the later stuff that uses it seriously would also be totally fine. (Taking the Dwarf Gender subplot again, the bit about how all dwarves are male in Guards! Guards! is undercut by Carrot talking about his mother, but later becomes so vital it’s part of the climax of the last Ankh-Morpork book, one I think Pratchett knew would be the final book published in his lifetime.) It’s important in the novels that Vimes and Vetinari don’t meet in secret except when he’s deposed in Guards! Guards! – they’re always in Vetinari’s office or in the open, because Vimes holds everyone accountable, himself included. From the sound of things, that got dropped. Doing Night Watch as flashbacks, and in its first season, means they’re cutting everything about Night Watch that makes it good. It doesn’t sound like the showrunners and writers had any idea what people actually like about this series, so changes meant to make it more appealing to a wider audience instead defeat any point of using the Discworld name at all.

agree with basically everything here – also, Good Omens was as faithful an adaptation as I really could have imagined, and I loved it. (great casting helped)

Agreed. They took it out of the 80s, but I can only think of a couple things vaguely resembling subplots that got cut (I missed the bit with the third baby getting adopted and having a fondness for tropical fish, and I’m pretty sure the Riders’ tagalongs weren’t present, but both of those were minor and clearly for time.) Everything else? Absolute joy to watch.

I completely Agee.

The Aziraphale and Crowley over the millennia was amazing and greatly appreciated. It was a great addition to a story that I have loved for many years.

Reading Pratchett later on it becomes apparent (to me at least, and I’ve read them…well, more times than I should) that he didn’t really get going with the Discworld series until probably book 10 or 11 (around Reaper Man). It seemed that once he got away from a fantasy series and made it basically a satire set in a fantasy world, that’s when it really took off.

I’ve stopped telling people to begin with The Colour of Magic/Light Fantastic and instead start with Guards! Guards! or – possibly – Mort, leading into Reaper Man, as I think he’s fleshed out his idea more by then and still starts a decent jumping-in point.

Yeah, there’s a reason the fandom frequently says ‘Don’t start with the first one, tell us what kind of fantasy you’re looking for, we have charts for this.’ Wyrd Sisters has its fans as well, especially if you like Shakespeare jokes, but even then I think Witches Abroad does better at establishing the themes of that subseries as a whole. (The Watch/Vimes actually sets up most of its themes even in Guards! Guards!, it just introduces members of the cast in stages and starts us at the absolute lowest point, but it’s the exception. It also helps that Night Watch does so well at calling back to the early days and explaining how we got to the state of things when we meet Vimes dead drunk in a gutter.)

View All Comments
Back to top ↑