The Watch (2021)

. 2442 words; about 13 minutes.
Category: TV.

The Watch was commissioned by BBC America and is a live-action TV series about The Watch in Terry Pratchett's Discworld. American media companies are infamous for licensing cult British media, missing the point, and churning out the same extruded media product they do every other day. So have they unexpectedly done a good job for a change, or is Betteridge's Law holding firm?

Discworld has spawned many books, radio plays, animated series, live-action films, videogames, towels, and now this. Yes, I've reused an old joke from a previous post but there really are towels this time, just in case you thought that was merely Douglas Adams's schtick. The live-action TV series is also a joke.

You can stream The Watch on iPlayer until the end of June 2022. It is also being broadcast on BBC Two from 12th August onwards, and will probably be repeated every 6-12 months until the tape wears out or somebody records Bargain Hunt over it. So feel free to hate-watch while reading the review.

Spoilers are blurred and a hover or tap will reveal them. If you can read this sentence without revealing it, your browser lacks the appropriate support and spoilers are not hidden. "Spoiled" is very much a good word to describe this series.

The cast

  • Vimes is a one-dimensional habitual drunkard. Richard Dormer plays the role and doesn't look a day over seventy. He is however only 51.

  • Carrot is played by Adam Hugill, who is not considered notable enough to get a Wikipedia entry, and for good reason. There is one for Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson which tells us both that he is "six feet tall and nearly as broad across the shoulders" and then talks about "a 6-foot-6-inch-tall (1.98 m) man" in the same paragraph. Wikipedia, eh? In the books Carrot has red hair, and there's a slightly weak joke that the nickname is for his carrot shape and not his hair. Adam is 6′0″ which is the average height for a man here in the Netherlands, is slightly fit but not exactly broad-shouldered, and has ash brown hair. Later in the series the hair dye is slapped on a bit more heavily (and less convincingly), but it still falls well short of a proper carrot-top.

  • Marama Corlett plays Angua as an emo, which works. At 5′1″ she also helps make up for Carrot falling short.

  • Cheery is played by the non-binary Jo Eaton-Kent, so at least somebody was paying attention to Cheery's character development in the books. There's an exchange in which Angua refers to Cheery as "she", Carrot questions "She?" and Angua reinforces "She", and that's that. Jo seems about the same height as Adam but looks taller somehow, perhaps due to the way they carry themself. It's hard to accurately guess Jo's height in comparison with Adam because of the camera angles, plus Jo sometimes wears heels, and Adam tends to stand closer to camera or on a step, possibly because somebody finally realised Carrot was miscast and they're covering up.

  • It took me a while to realise that Lara Rossi was meant to be Lady Sybil Ramkin. She is a good actress, but as a young good-looking black woman, isn't exactly the rotund middle-aged woman in the books.

  • Since so many liberties have already been taken, it no longer matters that Lord Vetinari is female; Anna Chancellor, to be precise. Havelock is a boy's name, "Lord" is also gender-marked, and so Havelock Vetinari is canonically male in the books, but a gender-swap doesn't really matter so long as we get a suitably-Machiavellian character, and we do. Vimes still addresses Vetinari as "Sir".

  • James Fleet plays the Archchancellor, mostly by playing his Hugo Horton character from the Vicar of Dibley. He can play more than one character as shown by his acting of the Professor Quanderhorn in that excellent series co-written by the brilliant Rob Grant (the good half of the Grant Naylor partnership who wrote Red Dwarf) and Andrew Marshall, but we don't have brilliant writers here.

The first episode: Oh dear

Vimes opens his eyes to see somebody wearing a couple of bike lights and some old rags. "Is this Death?" he asks, as do the viewers on first seeing such a naff costume. This elicits an "Obviously". Killing the protagonist very early was once a subversive trope but is now clichéd. "How did I get here?" he continues, to be told "Watch, Sam Vimes, watch." And thus an episode-long flashback starts.

Some music which wouldn't be out of place in a Vangelis album plays as an aerial camera pans across a night-time city lit up in electric light. Lightning flickers across a monolith of a tower, momentarily taking out the lights block-by-block. We cut to a rain-drenched street scene with flickering coloured light in the background. The caption "Ankh-Morpork, November 2019" appears. Okay, I made that last bit up, but the resemblance to Blade Runner is uncanny.

The street scene introduces a young Vimes, Carcer Dun the antagonist, and momentarily Sergeant Swires who gets stabbed and killed by Carcer. This production is funded by American money, so they've cast a a young black man (Sam Adewunmi) as the villain, because of course they would.

Now we fast-forward 20 years to the Ankh-Morpork that the rest of the story is set in. We get a quick tour of some of the set in a chase scene: there are plastic crates of fruit and veg, fluorescent tubes, cables strewn all over the place, and a food seller with an Asian-like sign although the budget didn't stretch to having Harrison Ford sat at the counter. On approach to "THE WATCH HOUSE" some of the letters burn out on its illuminated sign to spell out "T— WAT— —S—". Laugh? I nearly sighed.

Later in the episode we also get to see the Shades, lit in bright colours by LED strips. The Drum is a punk club with loud amplified music, blacklights and bright fluorescent graffiti scrawls on the wall. Josh Kirby's book covers may have shown a wilful level of ignorance of the contents, but this takes it to a whole new level.

While doing an investigation, Vimes sidles up to a CCTV camera. I had by now already started to assume that the producers had totally given up putting this story in the Discworld universe but it did indeed turn out to contain a goblin with a paintbrush suggesting that somebody might have glanced inside the books once or twice. However when he snatches the painted "slide" out of the machine, it turns out that one can swipe through multiple pictures like a modern tablet. So close, and yet so far. An echoing announcement around the city repeats "a new life awaits you in the off-world colonies", sorry, "Unseen University warns you, all citizens, to keep away from the sewers." Sam doing a pinch-to-enhance on the slide to get more detail at the same time did not help me avoid thinking of Blade Runner. It was about here when I gave up and decided that this version of the Discworld universe is at parity with Roundworld in 1982 when that film came out.

There's a machine in the background which made me think of an ASR-33 teleprinter due to the general colour and shape and it being covered in paper tape. A later shot revealed it also had a glowing screen which was likely a CRT of about 5″. Eventually it is actually brought into the plot and revealed to be a "clack" machine, which received and printed crime reports from citizens across the city. The clacks is from a later Discworld book, but any sort of accuracy or even causality has clearly already gone out of the window.

They used an analogue projector to compare a sample fingerprint against their database. This much is at least just about plausible, but when it goes "ping" and flashes up "match found", the suspension of disbelief fails again.

The credits in the title informed us that it was "inspired by characters created by Sir Terry Pratchett". Just like the aforementioned Blade Runner was inspired by Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

Anyway the general plot direction is set. Said inspiration is closest to Guards! Guards in that Carcer steals a book in order to summon dragons, and the Watch chase after this book, and then a series of other plot coupons that Carcer is looking for, to stretch this out to eight 45 minute episodes.

The remaining episodes

Episode 2 starts by concluding the flashback scene. Surprise, surprise (not!), the flashback was just a near-death experience—the first episode was titled "A Near Vimes Experience", after all—and Vimes didn't die but continues to appear throughout the rest of the series. It later has a discussion between Vetinari and the Archchancellor where they refer to the "thaumic power grid" which is an attempt to explain away the apparent existence of electricity. This "thaumic power" is so much like electricity that this universe also has 1980s-style payphones. A visit to Unseen University which introduces some new plot elements not in the books, but are at least in-universe: Slab is used as a fuel for magical reactions, which slightly links the University with the Slab smuggling that is going on. The University's library has a reading room which "reads people". The conceit is that it allows people to understand the Librarian (whose costume makes Death's look convincing), and then Angua and Cheery understand each other's thoughts too, such as that Cheery is afraid of the dark. The Librarian's costume is even less convincing than Death's and unless you already knew, you might not realise this was meant to be a monkey orangutan.

Episode 3 has the Watch chase another plot coupon, a sword called McGuffin, sorry Gawain. This involves them joining the Musicians' Guild in order to break into the Assassin's guild—there seems to be no point bothering with a spoiler warning as none of this makes any sort of real sense—to get the damn thing. We are treated to some awful rock music where Cheery sings about gold. An assassin is executed in this episode, and the only reason for this seems to be so we are shown their gravestone and thus see that the series is set in the (Discworld) year 1985 which perhaps explains a lot about this series. The flashback sequence would thus be in or around 1965 which is close to the 1968 publication date of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep but I'm probably just grasping at straws here to try and match parallel events in Roundworld. A lot changed in Roundworld in those two decades, but this particular Discworld was apparently the same unchanging neo-noir universe throughout.

Episode 4 has Goodboy (Sybil's small pet dragon) singing the series theme tune in his cage. It is partly reminiscent of Gizmo from Gremlins, and the tone sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Vimes (who is a superposition of alive and dead until these spoilers are revealed) picks up a guitar and joins in, and it's predictable that it's about to go full duelling banjoes, and a relief that it didn't. We are introduced to the Vimes "boot theory" which is so famous these days that it has its own website: Anyway, they find their plot coupon and it's all singing and dancing again.

In episode 5, they're so pleased at having found the plot coupon before Carcer did that, er, they want rid of it again. So there's a minor epic quest in which they trudge through a desert and forests in order to cast it to its doom. One Does Not Simply Walk Into Morpork. The desert is full of familiar devices, which involves another handwave in that Unseen University stole the ideas from Roundworld and that's the dumping ground. One such device is a treadmill containing a green-screen terminal for no obvious reason, which flashes up some text that flickers in an unconvincing way, demonstrating that the SFX people didn't know or care how CRTs work and that it never occurred to somebody to save on special effects budget and just use an actual knackered old CRT.

Apparently the sixth episode was so meh that I had stopped taking notes. It contains a rather camp poppy dance sequence which is a shoo-in for Eurovision, especially if the country is determined to hear "nul points" all night.

Episode 7 is either one massive continuity error or I'd missed something important after having lost the will to live somewhere around the middle of the third episode. This is an alternative reality/dream in which Vimes is in the Tanty prison and Carrot is one of the screws. Carrot has a carrot plushie in his pocket and his hair is a bit redder. There probably is a plot, but we are having trouble caring.

In the concluding episode, the dragon is finally summoned to come and destroy Ankh-Morpork. More fannying about occurs. The Watch decide to bring back the band and play a concert at the dragon for reasons which must have made sense in the production meetings. Anyway, pretty much as in the book, Goodboy is released and flies up to the dragon and they fly off and live happily ever after, saving the city. The story also clumsily 'ships Vimes and Sybil (as per the books), Carrot and Angua (ditto), and Cheery and a goblin.

It's topped off with a cliff-hanger in anticipation of a second series. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that after what they've done to the first series, there's probably not much chance of a second.