Terry Pratchett‘s Discworld novels are not the easiest books to adapt to screen. Much of the humour stems from Pratchett’s witty narrative voice and wonderful footnotes, and while he still pulls out some great ‘sight’ gags and amusing dialogue, it’s really the combination of these elements in the prose format that makes his books as popular as they are. The Watch is not the first time Discworld has made it to TV screens: Hogfather, The Colour of Magic/The Light Fantastic and Going Postal were all adapted for Sky One around a decade ago, but don’t seem to have left any kind of lasting impression. There have also been animated adaptations, but perhaps the most mainstream Pratchett adaptation wasn’t a Discworld novel at all but Good Omens, which he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman. Good Omens is the rare, as-close-to-perfect-as-one-can-get kind of adaptation, managing to maintain the humour and nuances of the story whilst still working as a great standalone TV series. The six-part series should have (appropriately enough) been a good omen for all subsequent Pratchett adaptations… i.e. this is how to do it.
Unfortunately, The Watch – a new eight-part series produced by BBC Studios for BBC America and iPlayer – is the sort of dodgy adaptation that managed to squander hope as soon as the promo images arrived. Pratchett’s estate have made their dissatisfaction with the series quite clear, and have very publicly distanced themselves from the finished production, in case you were wondering just how bad this show could be. In short, The Watch manages to completely ruin the characters, setting and story of Discworld, and instead offers up something that surely must appeal to…someone out there in the big, wide world, but who? In truth, it could well baffle any viewer, no matter your understanding of the world. This isn’t a simple case of changing the plot to suit a television series format, but a complete re-imagining of a whole world that already exists perfectly in the minds of millions of readers and that none of them asked for.
That’s not to say that The Watch is a complete train-wreck. The production values are impressive (the CGI dragon looks quite good, while Detritus looks great on-screen), the performances from the main cast are all quite serviceable and it’s not completely unwatchable as a TV drama in its own right. Simon Allen‘s script borrows particularly from Guards! Guards! with the introduction of Carrot and Lady Sybil Ramkin, and the inclusion of a book that bring a dragon to Ankh-Morpork, but it’s poorly structured and doesn’t introduce Discworld to new audiences particularly well. Any good one-liners are wasted and some great gags from the books are ignored, in spite of their comic potential in a visual medium. The murder mystery plot is weak (although this isn’t entirely surprising for a first episode), but perhaps the most frustrating aspect is how much Allen seems to misunderstand the characters he’s dealing with. He’s clearly read the books, and while he may not want to adapt them directly, it would make sense to adapt elements from them into the original story he wants to tell (even if it’s not anything particularly different or interesting). Comparisons between the books and this series are inevitable, but the variety of baffling deviations and creative decisions are too frustrating to get too far down that rabbit hole.
Richard Dormer isn’t a terrible choice for Sam Vines; I can see why they cast him and he’s clearly put a lot of work into his portrayal of the character, but everything feels far too deliberate and fake to believe that he is Vimes. The same can be said for Adam Hugill as Carrot, who’s amusing backstory is butchered thanks to some abysmal expository screenwriting from Allen. Lara Rossi, meanwhile, is completely miscast as Lady Sybil Ramkin, thanks in no small part to the way the character is written in the script. Again, Rossi isn’t bad in the role, but nevertheless just simply isn’t right, and quite what Allen was intending for Ruth Madeley as Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler (credited simply as “Throat”, as if the creative team couldn’t be bothered to explain the name) I have no idea. This is a case of incorrect casting, and just makes me wonder what a much better (and potentially just as diverse) cast could do with a better script. I can visualise Doctor Who‘s Jo Martin being a fun Lady Sybil! But alas, what we’ve got is what we’ve got.
The way Terry Pratchett describes Ankh-Morpork in the Discworld books is quite brilliant; it’s so easy to picture the quasi-medieval city that it absolutely astounds me that The Watch‘s version is the complete opposite. It’s surprisingly clean, bright and spacious, with no River Ankh in sight, complete with modern technology (Vimes gets out an iPad at one point) and neon lighting, as if the production designer didn’t do any research. The costumes are all far too modern, and the CSI-style fingerprint analysis scene felt completely out-of-place. I can imagine Pratchett turning that scene into a fun gag, assuming that he didn’t include something similar in a Discworld book I haven’t read yet, but alas in Simon Allen’s “reimagining” of The Watch, this is not the case. Considering that the BBC produce so many big budget period dramas on a regular basis, I’m surprised that the production team didn’t cannibalise leftover costumes, sets and props and build on those here, as opposed to the strange punk-rock aesthetic they aim for.
Overall, to say that The Watch is off to a bad start for me would be something of an understatement. When the legendary Terry has provided so many Discworld adventures and its wide variety of exciting characters and stories, it’s simply bizarre to ignore it all and come up with something that can’t be bothered to be an original show and has no interest in being even a vaguely faithful adaptation. There’s probably some good ideas in there, and if the show captured the spirit of the books, I could forgive its numerous deviations. However, as you may have guessed, this doesn’t work as a standalone entity, it doesn’t work as an adaptation – so what is it? Who is The Watch for? Why didn’t anyone stop them before it was too late? For anyone who may still be interested in watching this series, please just read the books instead – at least they’ve got some good jokes.