My thoughts on BBC America’s The Watch

Warning! I tried to remain calm but their might be some expletives. Also probable minor spoilers for various plot elements in the Discworld series but they should all be pretty vague.

On the 9th of October 2020, the New York Comic Con held a panel on The Watch, an upcoming TV show by BBC America inspired by the works of Terry Pratchett. This adaptation has been controversial, to say the least, and the panel and previews shown during Comic Con did nothing to put the minds of fans to rest. As a long time Pratchett fan (it’s no understatement to say that I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and this blog wouldn’t exist, if I hadn’t fallen in love with his work at an early age), I was among those deeply disappointed by current state of The Watch. Now there are already plenty of people that have already pointed out their problems with the adaption and I’ll provide some links at the end of this post for those of you looking for views other than my own, but here I wanted to take a step back from my initial gut feeling (which was to throw it all in a dumpster and set it on fire) and to try to present my thoughts as clearly as possible. To do so I’ll start by covering the Good (what I like), before going on to the Bad (what I don’t like) and finally the Ugly (which I’m reserving opinion on until we get more information and the actual series). I’ll be adopting the classification used by Discworld Monthly (a Discworld fan magazine that you really should be checking out if you’re a Pratchett fan, I’ll link them at the end): the TV series will be called The Watch whereas the series of books will be referred to as The City Watch.

Before I start I should point out that I’m not going into this expecting a perfect, or even a close, adaptation of the original works. Given what we currently know that would be an exercise in futility. What I want to try and evaluate here is the BBC America’s version of the City Watch series. I want to see what they have done with it, and provide my views on if it is an interesting take or not. A TV series is obviously a different medium than a book series, and the choice to not base episodes on the books but to mix and match (the justification for which is bollocks by the way, I’m not going to be able to be completely objective all the way though this), means that there are going to be pretty major plot changes which we don’t currently know much about. The Watch is not taking place in the Books!Discworld. What is written is written and nothing can change that or take it away. The Watch is happening in another Trouser Leg of Time, in another Second hand Set of Dimensions. I’m therefore going to try and be as forgiving as possible to the adaption, I will however leave you with these two Tweets by Stephen Briggs (because I’m still a bit miffed about it all):

The Good

So to begin with here are the aspects that, within the context of an adaptation, I quite like. The mustard on the sausage-in-a-bun if you like.

The Cast

I really like what the actors are doing. We’ll get to questions about characterisation and casting choices later, but I like the actual acting. Discworld has some of the most amazing characters in it and they need to be larger than life. They need to be present on screen and captivate you because the Discworld books are incredibly personal stories so if you’re not invested because the acting is off then there is no real point to it. We get wonderful little clips where the actors play off each other well, and the panel seems to show that they both get along well enough but also understand the character that they are playing (or at least the show version of it, yes yes we’ll get to that soon). Also, since this is the Internet I need to put a warning here, even if I have a hard time believing that we’d get any bile like this from the Pratchett community: at no point should any of the actors be attacked because of the choices that we’re made about their characters or the plot or absolutely anything else. If you want to criticise their acting, and can do it in a polite and constructive way, then that’s fine, but otherwise you can stick your hatred down a hole in Lancre.

From right to left : Jo Eaton-Kent as Constable Cheery, Marama Corlett as Corporal Angua, Lara Rossi as Lady Sybil Ramkin, Richard Dormer as Same Vimes, Detritus (I guess?) voiced by Ralph Ineson, Adam Hugill as Constable Carrot.

The music

I like the music in the trailer. It’s music with rocks in. I don’t know if they’ll keep it up during the show or if it’s just a trailer but I hope they do because it compliments the take they’ve had on the setting (segue!)

The setting

Ok, this might be a controversial opinion. I like what they’ve decided for with the setting changes. Ankh-Morpork evolves a lot over the City Watch series, but the reduced time line (I presume) of the TV series would probably make such an evolution quite jarring, which means that they have had to chose a single point in time to base The Watch series in. Now Ankh-Morpork is a wonderful mishmash of ideas even in the books. We get a reference to magical neon lights in Guards! Guards!, there is a rubber factory in the Fifth Elephant, and those are just minor references, that’s not including the major technological revolutions of printing and the clacks system. Now while in The Watch they do seem to have taken it quite far (not just the occasional light but what looks like an electric kettle in one of the photos and what is definitely an electric guitar during the trailer), they have still kept some of the weird mix that makes Ankh-Morpork seem so alive to be in the books. Neon lights are next to torch carrying guards. Medieval streets are mixed with a brutalist watch house. It’s a departure from what I mentally associate with the Discworld for sure, but I feel like it is at least a plausible representation of what Ankh-Morpork could be.
I feel like they have captured the shambles that is Ankh-Morpork, the weird mix of grime and dirt and the very jarring nature of old and new evolving in one place that has always added depth to the city and made it feel real, a place where people live and work and improve things and things aren’t perfect because cities aren’t perfect and don’t follow nice straight lines. I’m slightly worried that they go to far on it, and the “electricity” aspects become too common but from what I’ve seen in the photos and the trailer I can get on board with current levels of technology. I’m happy because it seems to be that the world is conforming to story expectations, not to reality, and that to me is one of the most Discworld aspects of Discworld that there can be.
Also I’ve seen takes on Twitter that they’ve gone cyberpunk on it and well, neon lights do not cyberpunk make. Just saying.

Angua and Cheery chilling in the wonderful mess that is the office. In the background: what looks like an electric kettle? Nice art deco staircase and a fun poster.

The Bad

Ok. Now onto the bits of the sausage-in-a-bun that even the mustard can’t cover up.

The characterisation

While I praised the actors in “The Good” part of this article, I’m of the opinion that they’re doing the best they can with the bad hand that they were dealt. A TV series doesn’t have the same capacity to add depth to characters that you can in a book. It’s hard to show internal monologues in a visual medium, and you don’t have the same time to devote to character building, it needs to be more immediate for the TV audience. However even with these caveats I just don’t understand some of the choices that have been made.

Lets get the big one out of the way to start. What in the name of Offler’s handbag have you done with Sybil? We’ll come back to questions of diversity and the physical aspects in the casting section later but here I’m looking purely at her characterisation. Book!Sybil is polite, she is reserved, she is an incredibly shrewd negotiator that can go blow for blow with the Low King of the Dwarfs and she wields her old school network like a troll wields a club in one of the most amazing displays of soft power ever put to paper. She is on the same level of political shrewdness as Vetinari for crying out loud, and on top of all of that, what really makes her amazing is that she is all of this and still kind, gentle and caring. She doesn’t need a weapon to be badass, though she can make do if needs must. It pains me to imagine her as some sort of vigilante fighter because apparently that is what we need to show a strong female character now. Heavens forbid that, you know, they might actually be strong on their own terms rather than having to adopt society’s masculine interpretation of what strength is. [It’s at this point in writing that I decided to stop writing and go to calm down before filling up the next three lines with expletives].

Now on to Sybil’s husband and the main protagonist of the City Watch books: Vimes, hater of vigilantes… wait no that can’t be right because his wife is one. Well whoops, best change his character as well then, in a turn of logic that leads to snakes in post boxes. TV!Vimes has apparently decided that the system is broken so he’s given up on it, rather than trying to fix it like in the books where he is a firm believer in actual justice (as well as truth and hard boiled eggs) rather than just having the watch be another mob in a city full of them already. The rest of the watch exists and seems to be in a better state than at the beginning of Guards! Guards! I’m hoping that this can be explained by a marketing blurb that has dumbed his motivation down because it has absolutely no room for nuance. Dormer (the actor that portrays Vimes in the series) talks about being drawn to the multiple layers of Vimes but it’s hard to tell from the trailers as his role in them so far is to be some sort of comic relief…

As for the rest of the characters, it’s a bit hard to tell from what very little information we have so far. Cheery, Angua and Carrot seem to be pretty close to their book version (if you ignore the physical changes). Angua is now training Carrot, rather than Carrot having got their before all of the others, which changes some of the dynamics in the couple slightly and I’m not really sure how that is going to play out but we’ll have to see. We only get one line about Detritus in the press releases which describe him as “An elemental exemplar of truth, loyalty and kindness, Detritus and Vimes have been close friends for many years since each saved the other from ruin”. Which is fine I suppose. Seems to fit so far with a bit of an adjusted back story. Vetinari is up in the air at the moment. We get one very short scene in the trailer which gives us very little, and a few quotes from the actress that make me nervous about how they’re taking the character (talking about a mix of Dracula and Elvis? Of a ramshackle system of government?).

I am however really worried about the choices for the antagonists. Carcer Dun is described in a press release as “wounded and wronged”… which I mean if you’re using a sort of round about definition of wounded and wronged… then maybe? Much like how elves are wondrous? I’m guessing that they felt the need to add some nuance to the character, but by Io have they missed the point on what actually makes Carcer Dun such a memorable villain if that’s the case. We also get a little snippit about Inigo Skimmer “a.k.a The Duke of Stab” (what?) who is “a member of the Assassins’ Guild whose long and distinguished career is jeopardized when he runs into The City Watch”. Much like the transformation of C.M.O.T Dibbler into Throat, ‘the city’s best snitch, with a gang of freelance henchmen at her beck and call’ rather than just a chancer street salesman, I wonder why you would bother using minor side characters names if you’re going to change them so much? I understand that if you want to play on the marketing opportunity provided by the Discworld licences then you need Vimes and Carrot and Vetinari and Sybil etc. because they are all major players that will draw people to the series. But are people really clambering to see your take on Inigo Skimmer rather than say “Assassin X”? Couldn’t you create some original character to be a snitch rather than co-opting Dibbler? It just seems to be inviting trouble by using characters so casually to fill in whatever plot hole you made with no care or attention paid to who they are.

When you change mediums, you have to change certain aspects to make them work on screen given the lack of time and the reliance on visuals and dialogue (even though I feel like Pratchett isn’t the hardest to adapt in this case but anyway, I’m not a screenwriter so what do I know), but I feel like the changes that they have made significantly reduce nuance and depth from characters. Pratchett’s character work is among the best and this does it just such a disservice that it overflows and impacts absolutely everything else and really makes it hard to really get behind The Watch

The lack of depth

I touched on this in characterisation part but from what I’ve seen so far the series just seems to lack depth. Now we’ve only seen trailers and marketing material that tends to dumb things down as much as possible because they have even less room for nuance than the series itself, but it very much looks like Discworld taken in the first degree. It reeks of someone having to sell this to a company as “it’s fantasy but it’s a cop comedy”, or “imagine Brooklyn nine-nine but with dragons” (don’t get me wrong I like Brooklyn nine-nine but we’re not talking about the same thing). The trailer could have been for any comedy cinema release. Someone took the books, went “it’s comedy” and didn’t look any further at what lurks under the surface: the commentary, the satire, the humanity, the anger. I hope I’m wrong on this one, and I debated putting this one in “the ugly” because I just don’t know enough about it yet, but if you’re selling this as a comedy then that’s what is people are going to come for and are going to expect and if you don’t mention anything at all about the rest then I’m sorry but you’ve missed the mark on what the Discworld series is about.

I’m sure I’ve seen these guys in Dr Who, they have rhino heads. Oh, they’re goblins? Really?

Death and fantasy species

The Discworld is inhabited by an array of different species with interesting takes compared to some in more classic fantasy. Humans, dwarfs and trolls are the most present, but we also have werewolves, vampires, gnolls, orcs, goblins,… However these different species all have very distinct takes that make them different and unique. We haven’t seen many different species in The Watch so far, which I don’t really mind as one of the main aspects of the books is that individual characteristics are always more important that the species that they are from, so again I’m basing my comments here on very little but what I’ve seen worries me slightly.

Lets get the big one that I’ve seen alot of complaints about out of the way to begin with: tall dwarfs. You know what? I can get on board with tall dwarfs because size isn’t what makes a dwarf a dwarf in Discworld. It does however seem to reek of “we didn’t have a budget or we just didn’t care enough to mess about with camera angles” which is not a comforting thought about the care and attention that was applied to adapting the books. It also makes things rather more confused for spectators that don’t know the books (why is Carrot so out of place in Dwarf society if he looks exactly like them?). I’ve also seen a lot of comments about Cheery’s lack of beard. Now in some of the photos she has a beard and in the trailer she doesn’t so I’m presuming that there is some shaving scene involved. While this is jarring to anyone hoping for them to stick with the book ideal of dwarfs who would never dream of shaving their beards I don’t really mind it either. Cheery has always been a very interesting character that deals with some major themes in our society, and I’m willing to accept changes in her representation to make the nuances clearer to a TV audience. I have no guarantees that it will be handled well by the show, but this is one of the cases where I feel like we should be willing to accept changes if they serve to reinforce what is interesting in the character rather than just erasing them. I’ll reserve my opinion on this one (plus there is some precedent in the book for beardless dwarfs).

I am however more concerned about the goblins. Many of you probably haven’t noticed them, I didn’t until I read the Discworld Monthly article, but apparently the two crossbow wielding goons following Carcer in the photo above are goblins. Yes yes, I know that they look more like deep dwarfs (if you ignore the size) or just humans in fire resistant armour, but no apparently they are goblins. Why? Goblins appear in some of the later books but they’re not warriors or goons. They represent very specific minorities in the books. Again, this looks like a very lazy “Tolkein with gags” approach to the books. Of course the antagonists goons are goblins, because that’s what goblins always are. And again, why are they so tall? Why include other fantasy species if you’re not going to make them in any way distinctive? Is it just to make the enemies “different” so that we’re not having to deal with humans being the bad guys? It just seems lazy and again like with their treatment of Dibbler or Skinner, just taking bits that yes exist in the books but changing them in such a way as to have no longer any relation to how they were portrayed. No one would have minded if you didn’t include goblins. Including them just to make them goons is just cheap and uninteresting. I hope that there is some deeper reason to their presence, but I’m having a hard time holding out hope here.

Since we’re on the subject of changing things beyond recognition, it’s time to mention Death. µLooks at the photo below. That looks nothing like Death. It sounds nothing like Death. At best it’s something closer to New Death in Reaper Man, which is stretching the definition of “at best” a bit. In the marketing material it’s described as “The Watch’s own idiosyncratic depiction of Death”. Well, it’s definitely that. I just don’t have the energy to argue about this one. Is a skeleton mask too much for the budget? Gods…

#NotMyDeath

The Ugly

And now the bun. I’m pretty sure that this metaphor has lost all context now. These are the bits that so far I have no opinion on, they just are for the time being, filling up space in my mind until we see more of The Watch so I can form a proper opinion.

Missing characters

There have been a lot of remarks about missing characters floating around the Internet. The most notable is the absence of Fred and Nobby, the heart and soul of the City Watch in many ways, providing humour and surprising social insights. Their absence in the The Watch series means that there doesn’t appear to be an “old guard” of coppers, Carrot’s training being covered by Angua, who can barley be older than he is. Given the simplification of certain characters and the general slide towards the comic, I must admit that I don’t think Fred and Nobby are needed in this adaption. I would of preferred to have them but I think if they were included they would just have been added as some probably unnecessary comic relief as I really don’t think that the show would have really got the more subtle parts of their personalities. I do however wonder about the emotional stakes in the Night Watch inspired episodes as so far it seems that the only person that we’ll recognise in the past is Vimes himself. I also understand why they have left out all the “secondary” City Watch members so as not to overload the viewers with too many characters who won’t have time to be developed in eight episodes (Reg and Dorlf, among many). It’s regrettable, but understandable given their limits.
We’ll have to wait for the series to be broadcast to see which side characters that make Ankh-Morpork feel alive have been included or and which have been forgotten.

The humour

In a visual medium we can’t really expect for Pratchett’s wordplay to come across as well as it does on the page. I don’t hold out much hope for incredibly witty “punes”. What we have seen in the trailers so far is decent but humour in trailers generally have a hard time landing so their isn’t much that can be taken away from that. We’ll have to wait and see.

Ah, alcoholism, always funny.

The casting

I debated putting this in both good and bad because there are some great bits and some awful bits and I just don’t know. Lets start with the good bits. They’ve made a good effort at improving diversity, which is perfect for something set in Ankh-Morpork. They have increased the number of women in powerful roles (Vetinari, Dibbler, Wonse, Cruces) as well as several actors of colour (Carcer and Keel, as well as Sybil). They have also cast a non-binary actor to play Cheery which seems essential given the current controversies rocking the world and I’m so happy to see it here. I really like that they have made these efforts, but it also unfortunately only highlights where they have faltered and failed.

While I’m fine with the changes made, some of them are questionable and will require the production team to be very careful in how they portray the characters concerned. Book!Vetinari is sometimes seen as an interesting male character because of his use of soft power and manipulation over force and threats of power. Making them a female character helps to improve the representation of powerful female characters (and also slightly makes up for robbing Sybil of so much of her more discreet power as we discussed in the section on characterisation) but it does however mean that the character is slightly less surprising, and risks falling into the trap of the “scheming manipulative female leader” trope if not carefully balanced. I also wonder about the choice of making Carcer black. I like the increase in diversity, it fits the city well, but do we really want to make the antagonist of a cop show black in the current climate? A certain Klatchian would probably tell me that they can be evil gits too, and he’d be right I must admit. I prefer to have more diversity than to have none at all just because they don’t want to take a risk, but they’re going to have to be very careful, and I’m not overflowing with confidence here.

Finally I’d like to touch on where they seem to have missed the mark: the lack of what we would call “less conventionally attractive people”. With the removal of Nobby and Fred and the transformation of Sybil from an imposing duchess to a young, slim vigilante there is a considerable lack of variation in body shapes here, and I’ve always found and will continue to find that to be one of the most disappointing realities of TV.

Conclusion

Given the length of the “bad” segment compared to the “good”, it’s safe to say that I’m not overly enthused by The Watch. The City Watch series is one of my favourite in the Discworld cannon, and to see what changes have been made here disheartens me. I can only hope that Narrativia (the company that holds the rights to the works going forward) is able to achieve its goals and get a more faithful adaptation in the works.

Quick fire round to conclude:
– Will it be a good adaptation? No.
– Will it be decent TV? Probably.
– Will I watch it? If its ever broadcast in France, yes.
– What’s the point? It wont be a faithful adaption, it will probably lack a lot of substance to actually make it truly enjoyable for fans, but it probably wont make you rip you hair out and cry if you don’t go into it expecting it to be anything more. It might however get people more interested in the books. Pratchett is an incredibly well known author but has never been in the main stream the way some others have thanks to a favourable TV show. It could be worth it to get more people interested in the works, especially if the existing fan base is welcoming to newcomers who might want to find out more about the works behind the series. It’s an exciting time for Discworld fans to come, may they live in interesting times.

BBC America’s The Watch airs in January 2021.

Links to other thoughts

A few links to information that might be helpful if you want more information about the series:

A brief history of the The Watch provided by Discworld Monthly:
https://discworldmonthly.co.uk/terrypratchett_thewatchseries.php

Marketing material from BBC America:
https://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2019/09/richard-dormer-leads-bbc-americas-next-original-series-the-watch
https://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2020/01/first-look-photos-bbc-americas-the-watch-starring-richard-dormer
https://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2020/08/new-photo-bbc-americas-the-watch-starring-richard-dormer-and-lara-rossi
https://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2020/10/bbc-americas-new-original-series-the-watch-enlists-wendell-pierce-and-matt-berry

The New York Comic Con panel with the 3 current trailers in it:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srAo3qwEeBg

A Guardian article on the backlash:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/oct/12/bbc-the-watch-shares-no-dna-with-terry-pratchett-work-daughter-rhianna

Link to Narrativia, the production company that aims to create “authentic Discworld screen adaptations”:
https://www.narrativia.com/

Be more Terry.
TTFN
Sam

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