UK TV review: The Watch
Faithfulness to material3
Ivan Radford | On 05, Sep 2021
“Time was something that largely happened to other people; he viewed it in the same way that people on the shore viewed the sea. It was big and it was out there, and sometimes it was an invigorating thing to dip a toe into, but you couldn’t live in it all the time. Besides, it always made his skin wrinkle.” So wrote the late Sir Terry Pratchett in Thief of Time, the 26th book in the Discworld series. If you take that view of time, the question of how long to invest in a TV series to decide whether to continue watching until the end becomes somewhat academic. In the case of The Watch, BBC America’s new Discworld show, it’s also irrelevant, as the eight-part programme has little to do with Pratchett’s novels in the first place.
The words “inspired by” are used to frame this take on the City Watch, the vaguely useful group of guards tasked with keeping order in the wayward metropolis of Ankh-Morpork. Then again, with corruption everywhere – including assassins and thieves guilds, which allow them both to commit crimes as long as they fill in the correct paperwork – the point of having a police force at all is another matter entirely. Writer Simon Allen keeps that vague premise in tact, drawing on multiple Watch books to cobble together a plot, which involves a sinister figure stealing a book from the Unseen University library to resurrect a dragon and burn the city to the ground. Meanwhile, the leader of the Watch, Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer) finds himself facing someone from his past that he long thought was dead.
So far, so good, but that person happens to be called Carcer Dun (Samuel Adewunmi), which only serves to highlight the changes that the series makes to the Discworld books – here, Carcer and Vimes’ history goes back to Sam attempting to arrest him when they were both members of a gang, only for Carcer to fall from the Unseen University’s roof to his apparent doom. While changes to plots and characters are no bad thing, the series’ big alteration is one of tone – there’s a steampunk, edgy vibe to the whole production that’s at odds with the warm whimsy of Pratchett’s witty writing. And, more to the point, the show doesn’t appear very confident in that choice, with the uneven tone taking a while to grow into something consistent and coherent. Dormer’s gurning, loud Vimes is more Captain Jack Sparrow than the original, Inspector Morse-like detective, while the punk rock aesthetic literally results in the Watch forming their own punk rock band.
And yet, the longer the series goes on for, the more it starts to gel together. That’s partly thanks to the script, which embraces its own wackiness to open up a multiverse-straddling fantasy mystery – once you move past the Carcer Dun of it all, there’s a fun romp through world-changing chaos that’s genuinely engaging. The jokes fly thick and fast and, while not all of them hit the target, there are enough chuckles and smiles for that not to matter.
It’s also thanks to the cast, who form an unexpectedly balanced ensemble. Adam Hugill is a good fit as Carrot, the naive new recruit who actually wants to do some policing, while Jo Eaton-Kent’s Cheery is a dwarf who cheerfully brushes away questions of gender to focus instead on their enthusiastic forensic skills. Marama Corlett has fun as Corporal Angua, who happens to be a werewolf, and Lara Rossi’s incarnation of Lady Sybil Ramkin has confidence and humour that makes her an ideal contrast to Sam Vimes. Dormer, meanwhile, calms down as he settles into Vimes’ boots, and does wind up tapping not only into the character’s love of drink but also his downtrodden sense of decency and humanity. Between them all, Wendell Pierce brings a surprising energy to the inevitable depiction of Death, who is frustrated with the way that other people don’t value him and voices it with a sarcasm that’s more sparky than the deadpan you’d typically expect.
The result is a colourful and inclusive piece of world-building that may not be recognisable as Discworld but does have a grit and wit of its own, right down to the Doctor Who-like cheesy special effects. But at eight hours and with no clear sense of who exactly the show is aimed at, is it worth the investment to get to a satisfying finale? The Watch isn’t the most faithful Pratchett adaptation out there, but taken on its own terms, it’s an invigorating thing to dip a toe into.
The Watch is available on BBC iPlayer until June 2022