Out of the half a dozen or more different ongoing storylines in Terry Pratchett’s marvelous Discworld series, the adventures of Sam Vimes and the City Watch seem like the easiest target for a television adaptation. While the fantasy spin and humanist perspective Pratchett brings to his world are distinctive, the structure will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a cop show before: there’s a mystery involving a crime, the heroes investigate, mishaps ensue, and eventually the responsible are brought to justice. Yet of all the various screen versions of the books, not once has Vimes and his motley band of misfit policefolk been the center of attention.
The Watch, an upcoming eight-episode series from Narrativa set to premiere in January 2021, looks to change that. Showrunner Simon Allen, executive producer Richard Stokes, and several members of the cast appeared in an online New York Comic Con panel hosted by Yvette Nicole Brown to talk about the show, describe their perspective on the material, and chat about their enthusiasm for Pratchett himself.
“[Pratchett’s] incredibly inventive, his books are full of rich literary environments,” Richard Stokes started. “But what was clear from the first part of development was that none of the books individually lend themselves to an eight part series [...] So we had to do a sort of pick-and-mix of the best bits across the range of books, and invent our own series, invent our own world. And that’s where, with everyone’s blessing, Simon came in, who was able to do his own original take on the characters.”
While the idea of generating new content (or repurposing old content) in order to fit a new format is standard in adaptation, the curious need to both praise the source material while repeatedly suggesting this is an entirely new version of that material, is an approach that might raise eyebrows among series fans. Pratchett’s books are difficult to adapt not because they lack incident, endearing characters, or good dialogue, but because any adaptation is almost inevitably bound to lose the one element that unifies all of the author’s work: his voice. Discworld novels are third-person affairs, but Pratchett’s humor, warmth, and generosity come clearly through every entry, in a way that isn’t easy to translate.
So maybe it’s good that The Watch is trying its own thing. “You don’t need to know the books in order to enjoy the series,” Stokes assures us, “and that’s one of the most exciting things about it.” Simon Allen goes on to give his own praise for Pratchett (“It’s inspired by Terry Pratchett because Terry Pratchett is inspiring,” a lovely sentiment, although canny viewers might point out that the show is “inspired” by Terry Pratchett because it’s literally working off of characters and stories he originally wrote) before offering his concept of the Watch (“flawed but adorable band of magical misfits”), Ankh Morpork (a “corrupt fantasy city”), and actress Anna Chancellor’s Lord Vetinari (“a dictator who largely uses sarcasm more than anything else”).
These aren’t terrible interpretations, and Simon’s clear passion for the project is heartening, as is the passion of the cast members on hand to answer Brown’s questions. (Less charming: a forced bit with Wendell Pierce, who voices Death, appearing in costume and in character.) Richard Dormer, best known as Beric Dondarrion on Game of Thrones, plays Vimes, the head of the Watch and quite possibly Pratchett’s most beloved creation; Dormer says he found the character through “the boots. I had a great pair of boots, and I thought it’s all about the walk.” It’s a smart approach, much like Laura Rossi’s take on Lady Sybil Ramkin: “Lady Sybil is someone who has a problem with the way her world operates […] She’s also extremely pompous and entitled, and makes mistakes, and she learns from them.”
Jo Eaton-Kent, who plays a female dwarf named Cheery, promised “a lot of queer magic,” which suggests a potentially interesting new perspective on the source. Marama Corlett (who plays Corporal Angua) and Adam Hugill (Constable Carrot) also put in appearance, and both are pleasant and say all the right things. Still, the biggest impression one gets from the actors is that they were impressed by the set, and that filming in South Africa was “hot.”
It’s hard not to be at least a little skeptical. We learn bits and pieces about the plot: someone wants to raise an elder dragon, which is possibly a reference to the first City Watch book, Guards! Guards!; and there’s considerable praise for Sam Adewunmi’s performance as Carcer Dun, a villain taken straight out of Night Watch. Carcer is an utter bastard in the novel, a selfish, murderous sociopath who seems to have little in common with the television version of the role: “He’s actually not a villain,” Allen explains, “he’s a character with a heart and a soul, and I think it goes to some places that are surprising and shocking and heartbreaking and hilarious.”
It remains to be seen if any of this will either work on its own, or as an effective take on the much loved books, or (hopefully) both. The actual footage shown isn’t promising, leaning into the Gilliam-esque steampunk presentation on display in the original promotional photos; there’s a self-consciousness to the humor, along with the aggressive aesthetic, that feels entirely at odds with Pratchett’s well-worn comfortable style. But the trailer and scenes are short enough that it’s possible the whole thing will work better as a whole, just as it’s possible that Richard Dormer won’t be making the same bug-eyed expression in every shot. Time will tell.