BBC America’s The Watch: Pratchett in an alternative dimension

I was mucking about with anti-virus/anti-malware on macOS Big Sur the other day which included testing various VPN products and ended up on BBC America’s web site whilst connected to a US server. There, for the taking, was the first episode of the controversial adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of novels based on the Ankh Morpork City Watch in the form of a TV series, The Watch, which is yet to air here in the UK.

I wasn’t able to get past episode one, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but BBC America requires that you sign in with a US cable provider. As I’m not a merkin, I cannot do so. But what I did see within the confines of the first episode was rather interesting.

First things first, though. I was delighted. Over the moon. Cock-a-hoop. Fandabidozied.. when I was working at The Moving Picture Company and found out that we’d be working on the very first live-action TV series of a Terry Pratchett Discworld property. For me, out of all the projects MPC had worked on – this was the bee’s nuts, the mutt’s knees or other anatomical parts of animals that are really good. And I think we did extremely well with Vadim Jean’s adaptation (with bits of the screenplay mucked about by PTerry himself) of Hogfather and Colour of Magic. I also very much enjoyed Going Postal too. These adaptations were great fun and captured the spirit and look of Discworld and its inhabitants nicely.

Many, many years later and we’ve got a brand new TV adaptation based on the Watch of Ankh Morpork. But unlike the other adaptations, this one had a much more difficult birth which has resulted in a radically different kind of Ankh Morpork/Discworld – at least visually. A Discworld of an alternative dimension to that we all know and love. We have the same characters, but not entirely as we know them.

The first thing I will say about The Watch is that the actors – all of them – do a marvellous job. Top-notch stuff here. Richard Dormer in particular, as Sam Vimes, is bloody marvellous – even if he is not the Sam Vimes I’ve imagined over all these years reading the novels. I think the closest we’ve got in terms of characterisation is Constable Carrot (played by Adam Hugill) who plays him exactly as I’d imagine Carrot to be. Corporal Angua (Marama Corlett) is also fairly close too. And I can absolutely see the relationship forming between the two in this adaptation, just as it does in the books. But I am particularly impressed with the casting of Lady Sybil Ramkin (who will eventually become.. well, you’ll need to read the books) – Lara Rossi IS Lady Sybil. She’s an absolute delight. Good Boy, the dragon, makes me chuckle. Hopefully we’ll get to see a lot more of him in later episodes.

I didn’t recognise CMOTB (Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler) at first due to the gender-swapping recasting of both CMOTDB and Lord Vetinari. For me, CMOTD will always be an Arthur Daley type, surviving by the skin of his teeth through sausages inna bun or moving pictures – and not by selling the narcotic Slab. Dibbler couldn’t have been a drug dealer if he tried.

What’s interesting about this version of Discworld is that they too use practical effects for several main characters. Like Death in Hogfather, he’s a bloke wearing a big robe and a mask. In this version, it’s still a bloke in a robe, but we just see two blue lights. No skull. With an American accent. No, no, no, no. Bad. Wrong. Terrible. As for Sergeant Detritus, he actually looks pretty good as a practical creature – though at one point some of the prosthetics work fails somewhat and you see a bit more of the actor (Ralph Ineson) underneath than we should.

The VFX are pretty decent too and serve the show just fine.

Overall, and rather oddly, I rather like this weird parallel universe version of Discworld. I never thought I’d say that. It has many problems, yes, but its the performances which save this show, along with a healthy dose of humour. Or look at it this way: Game of Thrones season eight was an atrocious mess that should be confined to the vaults of Warner Bros. forever. This, The Watch, is a much better alternative. Is this our Discworld that we’ve come to know and love after all this time? No. Is this Batman who has become a news reporter in a yellow trenchcoat with a pet bat (as suggested by Neil Gaiman)? Maybe.

But good god it’s entertaining.

And as long as the momentum and insanity of episode one keeps up along with the rest of the series, I look forward to watching the whole of it whenever it comes to the UK shores.

Next, why I didn’t hate Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cats… (honestly, I didn’t hate it, though he should never be allowed near VFX people ever again.)