Review: The Watch Wants To Be A Punk-Rock Version of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
Terry Pratchett is one of those beloved authors who created a world ripe for adaptation. Several novels from Pratchett’s long-running Discworld series have seen adaptation before. However, Discworld has never had its own TV series until now, with The Watch on BBC. In the lead up to its premiere, The Watch has already faced heavy criticism for odd style choices and tonal differences from the books. The showrunners have also made it clear that the series is just “inspired” by Pratchett’s novels, not a direct adaptation. The BBC aired a two-part premiere for The Watch on Sunday night, lumping the first two episodes together. So how does The Watch hold up on viewing? Let’s dive in and find out.
The Watch Introduces Its Ensemble Cast
Image via BBC
In a two-episode premiere that aired on Sunday night, The Watch introduced its motley crew of characters that form The Night Watch in the Discworld city of Ankh-Morpork. First up we have Captain Sam Vimes played by Richard Dormer of Game of Thrones fame. Vimes is a grizzled old captain who has ‘more booze than blood’ in his body at this point. He hasn’t been a real policeman in years – due to the legalization of crime in the city. But a familiar face from his own past, and a magical plot to destroy the world forces him to actually do some real police work for a change.
Among the members of the Discworld Night Watch we also have the transgender dwarf Cheery (played by an actual genderfluid actor in Jo Eaton-Kent). Constable Carrot (Adam Hugill) is the newest member of the force, the only one who wants to do actual police work. We round out the crew with the beautiful Corporal Angua (Marama Corlett) who also happens to be a werewolf.
They are joined by the Lady Sybil Ramkin (Lara Rossi) who is excellent as the confident dragon trainer. My personal favorite character from the books shines on-screen with humor and verve. She is easily the other best character on the show. Her knowledge of dragons (and her arsenal of weapons) will come in handy as The Night Watch hunts down a dragon from legend that has suddenly appeared in the skies over Ankh-Morpork.
Tonal Dissonance Drags The Watch Down
Image via BBC
The Watch suffers from some unfortunate choices made by the showrunners that are kind of baffling. The first is the tone of the show. Stylistically the show is interesting, if a little confused. The colors are all dark and slightly desaturated, but the cinematography and special effects are actually pretty decent. However along the line someone decided that The Watch needed to be edgier. This is at odds with the often silly and whimsical tone of the Discworld novels. Perhaps it is this tonal dissonance that caused the “inspired” tag to be slapped onto The Watch.
Despite all of this tonal dissonance, there are some genuinely funny moments in the first two episodes of The Watch. The running gag about the exploding typewriters is pretty funny. But it is not funny enough to be a proper Discworld adaptation. Instead The Watch is trying too hard to achieve some kind of edgy punk rock aesthetic that is at odds with the source material.
While watching the first two episodes of The Watch, it often felt like this show wanted to be part of The Witcher universe rather than Discworld. It wants to be grim and gritty with dark secret magics, and epic world-changing events. But that is not what Discworld is about really. It feels like in an effort to make yet another ‘serious’ fantasy show, the showrunners stripped away everything that makes Discworld entertaining.
The Characters Are The Strongest Part of The Watch
The Watch draws from several Discworld books that revolve around the character of Sam Vimes and The Night Watch. And like so many Discworld novels, it is really the memorable characters that are the most important element. And I have to give The Watch some credit for investing time and energy into each character over the course of the first two episodes. Each one of them has a distinct and strong personality that often clashes with the others. And you’ve got to give the actors credit for doing their best with badly written dialogue, and confusing exposition. They are acting as hard as they can (although in the case of Richard Dormer, this might be a little too hard).
Image via BBC
Vimes is certainly a character. Although his onscreen representation is possibly the most drastically changed from the books, it kind of works in this setting. Richard Dormer brings fire and spit to the role. He also chews on the scenery almost as much as he chews on the cigar perpetually hanging from his mouth. Dormer certainly throws himself into the role of Sam Vimes, but he is a little over-the-top. But in smaller moments – like the brief feeling of pride he has after Lord Veterinari tells him he has done good work – the actor really shines. Dormer has shown in previous roles that he is a subtle actor. So we just need him to remember that not everything about Captain Vimes needs to be big, loud, and drunk in The Watch.
Memorable Characters Try To Redeem The Mess
Image via BBC
It is not just Vimes who jumps off the screen as a larger than life character in The Watch. The rest of his crew manages to get a surprising amount of character development in the first two episodes. This is to the show’s credit, since it is the characters that fans of the books are really here to see.
Carrot is probably the character who is closest to the version from the books. He is honest, good-natured, and old-fashioned. He is also a little bit simple, and oblivious to the world. But – paradoxically – he is also a pretty good detective. I do have to say that Adam Hugill is perfectly cast in the role of Carrot here. He looks the part and has the naive enthusiasm, as well as the presence needed for the role.
Angua so far is most interesting in relation to others. She has a great friendship with Cheery that gets a moment to shine in the second episode. Angua is also forming a reluctant attachment to young Carrot, against her better judgement probably. But so far she doesn’t have much of a character on her own, outside of being a werewolf. This is a character who definitely needs more development in future episodes.
Two Women Stand Out Above The Rest
Cheery Littlebottom | Image via BBC
The transgender dwarf Cheery stands out as the most interesting of the lot so far. She is the team’s forensic examiner. She gets a chance to shine in the first episode when she is delighted to find a fingerprint on the neck of a murder victim. Cheery is quiet; empathetic, intelligent, and funny. She also demonstrates a depth of emotional intelligence that the others lack. Although this character has changed a lot from page to screen, this might be one of the better changes. The show establishes from the outset that Cheery is a woman (in the book it was a secret for a long time). And dares anyone (including Carrot) to question it. Jo Eaton-Kent lends a steadiness and subtlety to the show that is desperately needed.
Lady Sybil Ramkin | Image via BBC
Lady Sybil is a great character, drawn almost directly from the pages of Pratchett’s novels. One of Sybil’s predominant character traits is the way she never shirks from a fight. And in the first two episodes of The Watch that is made abundantly clear. Her arsenal of weapons (including a tiny dragon flamethrower) is impressive and an unexpected source of humor. Sybil is also fighting to change the way things work in Ankh-Morpork. A bold and larger than life figure, she comes to life onscreen in a grand manner. However, I am a little disappointed that the BBC chose not to cast a plus-sized actress in this role (as that is how Lady Sybil is described in the books). But actress Lara Rossi is still excellent, breathing life into every scene she inhabits.
Who Will Watch The Watch?
Image via BBC
So should you watch The Watch? I’m not sure. It is unclear who exactly this show is meant for. Diehard fans of Pratchett’s Discworld novels will almost certainly be disappointed, and put off by the tonal dissonance. Casual Discworld fans might find themselves utterly confused as to what is going on plot-wise. I read all of Pratchett’s novels years ago and I remember them quite well. But I often found myself utterly lost as to why things were happening in the show, even though I read the actual books. (Others will certainly be put off by a fantasy cop show premiering in 2021, following a tumultuous year full of police brutality and corruption.)
But, there are some good elements to The Watch. The actors are doing their best; the characters are memorable, it is sometimes funny, and it is visually interesting. And with a dearth of new shows on the horizon, what other choice do we have but to watch The Watch and hope it gets better as it goes along?
The Watch will air new episodes weekly on the BBC. Let us know what you thought of the two-part premiere of The Watch in the comments, how did you feel it compares to the Discworld novels? And be sure to follow Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter for more genre news and reviews.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.