Watching the first episode of The Watch, I was reminded of the 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. The producers of that movie tried to have it both ways in making a movie that would be full of references to Douglas Adams’ books and beloved by his fans yet still be accessible to general audiences. They failed miserably in both goals, producing a movie full of Easter eggs that only the most die-hard Hitchhikers fans would notice while simultaneously changing and removing essential details regarding the book’s story and characters.
For instance, the film made a number of references to towels and their importance, but did not explain that towels are like Swiss Army knives to intergalactic hitchhikers. The end result was confusion among the general audience and annoyance among the fans that out of all the sections of the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the movie quoted, they couldn’t be arsed to have Steven Fry narrate the paragraph about why towels are important.
The Watch is born of that same spirit. It has taken random names from the oeuvre of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and applied them haphazardly to a product meant to appeal to a wider audience. This has, naturally, resulted in a bland concoction that has no clear audience.
I am not here to discuss The Watch as a fan of the Discworld books. To do that would require words I do not allow my writers to use as the editor-in-chief of a semi-family friendly publication.
I doubt there is much I can say that you haven’t already heard in any case. Both Neil Gaiman and Rhianna Pratchett have already responded to the series with far more class than it deserves. Suffice it to say, the Pratchett estate has noted repeatedly over the past year that The Watch is “inspired by” the writings of Sir Terry Pratchett rather than being “based on” them. Not that it mattered because the show’s head writer and producer seems to have been going out of his way to avoid acknowledging the source material.
To paraphrase a Crow T. Robot line regarding the movie Village of the Giants (which was “based on” HG Wells’ Food of the Gods) The Watch is only “based on” Sir Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! in that they are both written in English and use some of the same words.
No, I am not here to discuss The Watch as a fan or a scholar. I am here to see if this steampunk rock reimagining of a beloved fantasy franchise can stand on its own two foot-like appendages as something unique and original that is worth watching on its own merits. Unfortunately, everything unique and original about it has been handily removed and it has no merits.
The Watch is set in the city of Ankh-Morpork, which looks something like Dickensian London if it were populated by dwarfs, trolls and goblins. Well, I say populated for lack of a better word. Due to the budget there’s only one CGI troll, the goblins hide their inhuman features behind large helmets and the only dwarfs we see outside of flashbacks are rookie cop Carrot Ironfounderson (who is technically a dwarf by adoption) and City Watch forensicist Cheery, who shaves her beard and is inexplicably tall for a dwarf. When Carrot (Adam Hugill) asks if Cheery (Jo Eaton-Kent) was adopted too, she says they come in all sizes where she’s from.
There’s not much plot to the first episode, which is devoted to establishing the setting of Ankh-Morpork and the city’s unusual approach to crime management. 20 years earlier, the city ruler reasoned that crime was an inescapable reality of urban life. As such, if crime was inevitable, it should at least be organized crime. This led them to declare the Guilds of Thieves and Assassins to be legitimate trade unions like any other and to place drug dealing under the supervision of the Guild of Alchemists. This led to a drop in the crime rate as the criminals proved to be much more effective at policing themselves than the police. It also left the police without much to do, and as the story opens the leader of the City Watch, Captain Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer), is in the middle of drunkenly arresting the dog that pissed on his leg.
What little story exists is devoted to Vimes being ordered to investigate the theft of a book from the library of Unseen University, by Ankh-Mopork’s ruler, Lord Vetinari. (Anna Chancellor) Vimes is distracted from this almost immediately by the apparent resurrection of Carcer Dun (Samuel Adewunmi) – a gang leader with a connection to Vimes’ past. Vimes also runs afoul of Lady Sibyl Ramkin (Lara Rossi), a noblewoman turned vigilante who is kidnapping criminals off the streets to teach them that crime is wrong, even if it is legal. The rest of the episode is devoted to introducing the rest of The Watch, including Angua the werewolf (Marama Corlett) and Detritus the Troll (Ralph Ineson).
The actors do their best to try and make this work, but they’re fighting a losing battle against both the flat direction and the lifeless script. All of this exposition unfolds at a snail’s pace in flashback, as Vimes is confronted by Death. As in the tall bony fellow with the scythe, who was a reoccurring character in the Discworld books. You know immediately what sort of show The Watch is going to be, even before we see the dog pissing on Vimes’ leg, because this flashback shows events that Vimes wasn’t present for.
Beyond being dull, The Watch just isn’t funny. This would be unforgiveable if they were trying to faithfully adapt the books. As it is, it’s simply one more aspect of the production to suffer through. What makes it downright torturous if you’re a Discworld fan is all the scenes from the books the show tries to emulate and utterly fails to make funny as the humor is dependent on the audience having read the books. Much like in the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie, often times the reference itself is the whole of the joke.
A prime example of this is the scene where Angua, Cheery and Carrot try to sober up a dead-drunk Vimes using Klatchian Coffee – a substance Cheery describes as “a good poison.” Fans of the Discworld know it as a coffee so strong it can only be drunk while intoxicated, lest you risk becoming too sober, or knurd. In The Watch, it causes the drinker to see whole galaxies instead of stars and allows Richard Dormer another chance to mince about like a Jack Sparrow cosplayer who lost his wig and hat.
In the end, The Watch is the sort of show that promotes itself as a “punk rock thriller” and then fills its soundtrack with 35 year old New Wave pop instrumentals. (Seriously. The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian” is used as Vimes’ leitmotif.) When it was over, I found myself asking the same question I asked when I saw the first previews for The Watch: who in the nine hells of Stygia was this made for?
The fans don’t want it. The norms will be confused by it. It’s only purpose seems to be killing the television fantasy genre for another generation and convincing streaming service executives everywhere that the success of A Game of Thrones was a fluke.
I don’t like to be wholly negative in my reviews, so I will give The Watch this much; it gave me a new appreciation for how well Good Omens was handled. I strongly suggest you watch that instead. Do not watch The Watch!