There’s a moment in episode three of The Watch, BBC America’s don’t-call-it-an-adaption of Terry Pratchett’s hugely popular ‘City Watch’ novels – the police-procedural strand within his comic fantasy Discworld series – where principle villain Carcer Dun (Samuel Adewunmi), quietly deploys probably the most important line of dialogue in the whole show: “The history of this world has already been written” he says bitterly to Wonse, his accomplice (Bianca Simone Mannie), “there’s no place for us here“. It’s a moment of meta-awareness in which our antagonist shows he understands the narrative conventions he is operating within and refuses to be confined by them; a theme absolutely typical of Pratchett’s books, and that runs through the show like a glass of milk runs through a sick old lady.
It’s also literally true. The history of this world has been written – Pratchett wrote it across 42 novels between 1983 and 2015, evolving his creation from a parody of medieval fantasy to a quasi-Victorian and fully industrialised social satire. What’s more, there is indeed no place for these figures. Characters called “Carcer” and “Wonse” do appear in the Discword series (in two different stories), but bear no relation to the duo presented here; different people with different motivations given the names of baddies from the books and faint shadows of their arcs and stories. They’re far from the only ones.
The Watch has proved more controversial than its creators probably expected and has been subject to a substantial backlash among the huge and global Discworld fanbase, thanks to showrunner Simon Allen’s decision to play fast and loose with plot, character and setting, magpieing from seven or eight different books and throwing quite a lot baby out with the bathwater – while adding more than a few babies and quite a lot of bathwater of his own. This may be the reason why there is, as yet, no broadcaster or release date locked in for the UK where Pratchett, who died from complications resulting from Alzheimer’s disease in 2015, is still a huge name. BBC America has said that discussions are ongoing, though more than one voice in the Pratchett-adjacent camp has expressed doubts that the show will be hitting British screens any time soon. A second season has yet to be confirmed, and at present feels unlikely – ratings have declined steadily since the show debuted in early January to a modest 270,000 viewers, with a steep drop-off in the key 18-49 demographic after the second episode.
The Pratchett camp, for their part, has done its best to aggressively ignore the show’s existence, though Narrativia, the production company set up by Pratchett alongside his daughter Rhianna and right-hand-man, Rob Wilkins, still shares a producers credit. Rhianna Pratchett has gone on record as saying that the series “shares no DNA” with her father’s creation, while Pratchett’s friend and collaborator Neil Gaiman was characteristically quotable, saying of the first trailer “It’s not Batman if he’s now a news reporter in a yellow trenchcoat with a pet bat.”
So what went wrong? How did a project set up by Pratchett himself back in 2011, a property with a built-in audience and huge franchise potential, manage to lose the faith of the fanbase it most needed?
Firstly, it’s worth noting that despite the quite titanic levels of shade thrown by the Pratchett camp and the wrath of an extremely vocal online fanbase, The Watch itself isn’t actually that bad, providing you can put the source material out of your mind. It’s maddeningly inconsistent and tonally all over the place, but there’s also a lot to enjoy. The cast is great, with Game of Thrones’ Richard Dormer leading a ragtag police force as Captain Sam Vimes, with a chin-first, cigar-chomping portrayal that lands, for this viewer at least, just the right side of caricature. There are hints of real pathos swimming below a performance that in lesser hands would wobble into a Popeye impression. Lara Rossi, seen recently in I May Destroy You, is brilliant as Lady Sybil; funny, charismatic and cool (though fans of the books may want to hold their nose – the character is a much younger, ground-up rewrite of Pratchett’s likeable, plus-sized, middle-aged aristocrat.)
Best of all is Jo Eaton-Kent, the non-binary actor playing gender-fluid forensic expert Constable Cheery. Eaton-Kent is a hugely likeable presence, stealing almost every scene and grabbing most of the best lines. Their dance number in episode six, performed in glittery silver thigh-boots, artfully sculpted hair and a full beard, is both the highlight and the postmodern heart of the show. Also worth shouting about is the production design; the show updates Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork into a cyberpunk dystopia, all concrete and neon. Again, you can see why the purists get annoyed – this looks nothing like the Victorian-style city of the books – if you can get past that, however, there’s an absurd level of detail in every scene, crammed with torn posters, graffiti and subtle sight-gags; Manhattan’s grimier zipcodes turned into a neon-lit hellscape. It’s a fantastic visual achievement.
It’s worth noting that many of the shriller voices decrying the show online are approaching it from a reactionary mindset absolutely at odds with the world-view of the author they profess to love. The Watch has plenty of problems, but none of them come from an attempt to be “woke”, as some have claimed. Some roles have been gender-swapped, which one suspects would have been unavoidable in any case – Pratchett simply didn’t write enough women to suit 2021’s television sensibilities. The swapped characters are carefully chosen – casting Anna Chancellor as the ruler of the city, Lord Vetinari, or Ingrid Oliver as the scheming assassin Dr Cruces, makes not a jot of difference to their characters at all. Making Lady Sybil, Carcer and Wonse people of colour has literally no impact on the plot, while bringing important representation to a series that might have had more blue and green faces than brown. Eaton-Kent’s non-binary Cheery has also gotten up noses, but accusations of tokenism are missing the point – in the books Cheery is a Dwarf woman forced to live in a society where everyone presents as male. She adopts female pronouns and scandalises by wearing high heels on her steel-toed boots and plaiting her beard with ribbons. Pratchett may well have had “being a woman in a man’s world” in his mind at the time, but Cheery’s arc maps perfectly onto the trans experience too. Eaton-Kent might be about three feet too tall for the role (“Dwarves come in all sizes” is the cop-out explanation in episode one), but the gender politics are absolutely spot on. Owning who you really are and not letting tradition, society or indeed the typical shape of the story, define you has always been at the heart of Pratchett’s writing, and the series gets closer to that heart than you might think. One Facebook enthusiast accused the producers of “raping Pratchett’s work”. Such opinions are best ignored.
That’s not to say The Watch is without its problems. Producers presumably hoped to pick up a casual audience without having to rely on the hardcore fandom that comes with the property, something Game of Thrones managed just fine. The sliding ratings would indicate something has gone wrong. The show’s uneven tone presumably has a lot to do with that, as it hurtles between a CBBC adventure, a broad sitcom, the surrealism of The Mighty Boosh and, occasionally, a darker, more adult SF drama more akin to Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Some of the jokes land brilliantly, others fall completely flat. Sometimes it’s blandly predictable, while in other places it takes narrative left turns that don’t really work. Episode 5 sees the gang trekking through a magical desert where each experiences vivid flashbacks to the traumas of their past. As moments of character development, they’re brilliant; as beats in the actual plot of the episode, they’re baffling. The storytelling is murky, sometime over-complicated, sometimes overly simplistic. As unfair as it is to criticise a show for something it isn’t, it’s still maddening – Pratchett’s plots were always so immaculately thought through and his narratives clean. His mysteries, as Gaiman once said, “tick like Swiss watches”. Allen and his team had access to those nuanced plots and opted to take the flashiest bits from different books and leave the important connecting tissue behind.
It could all have been very different. The Watch was originally conceived as a continuation of the stories in Pratchett’s books rather than a reboot of them. The series was first announced in 2011, to be overseen by Rod Brown – responsible for three previous Discworld adaptations for Sky – with Rhianna Pratchett on a writing team that was also reported to include Guy Burt (The Borgias) Terry Jones (Monty Python) and Gavin Scott (Small Soldiers, Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) with production design overseen by Ricky Eyres (Farscape). The budget was apparently to be £2 million per episode, of which 13 would be produced at 60 minutes each, with Pratchett having ultimate sign-off on the plots; something he always insisted upon when his work was adapted for the screen (he’s credited as “mucking about with” all three of the Sky shows). Footage survives on YouTube of the author alongside Brown, Wilkins and Eyres, with Scott on the phone from LA, discussing the direction of their “CSI Ankh-Morpork” detective show. A visibly excited Pratchett throws in idea after idea, only one of which – that characters form a band – seems to have survived to the final product.
So what happened? “It went through a very long time in processing,” says Colin Smythe, Pratchett’s literary agent and a confidant of the author since the late 60s when he agreed to publish his debut novel. “We discussed it with the BBC, with Terry as the final arbiter. It was going to be using the books up to the characters included in [the final City Watch book] Snuff. They could make up storylines and new characters with input from Terry, and his final approval. This was what was discussed at the one large meeting I attended – I never saw the contract. And then Terry’s health was deteriorating and that put everything on hold.”
Pratchett succumbed to his illness in spring 2015, having kept it at bay for a remarkable eight years following his diagnosis, even writing or co-authoring nine novels through the fog of his disease. His passing left an unfillable hole in the world for many people. It also, frustratingly, left a hole in the contract Narativia had signed for what would become The Watch, which had specified that “Terry Pratchett” had final sign-off on the show. It said nothing about his representatives, his co-directors at Narrativia or his Estate having a right of veto. “Nothing was said about anyone else having the ultimate decision if the situation changed”, says Smythe, “it was inconceivable at that moment in time [when the show was first being developed] that Terry wouldn’t be there to oversee things.”
Pratchett’s death had freed BBC Studios to change tack on the show. They wasted little time, bringing in Simon Allen later that same year– fresh from his success with BBC One’s The Musketeers – and porting The Watch to BBC America, the home of such quirky hits as Orphan Black and Dirk Gently. “They’d written scripts with far grander writers than me”, Allen told a blog dedicated to scriptwriting in 2020, “but unfortunately every single one had been turned down … they’d pretty much run out of road in late 2015 and were trying to figure out a new way forward.“ A shift in focus, breaking the characters and stories down to component parts and starting again, finally got The Watch greenlit, for better or worse.
The Pratchett camp was, publicly at least, supportive of the show for a long time. Allen even appeared at the 2018 Discworld Convention where he promised fans that the long-awaited series would be something the author would be proud of. The mood would soon change. In November 2019 Rob Wilkins, who had previously shared tidbits about the show to entice fans, made an about-turn, tweeting “Inspired by NOT based on #TheWatch”, after which team Narrativia seemed to dry up where the show was concerned. Rumours spread that Allen had finally pushed too far in his adapting of the work and that Narrativia was washing its hands of the whole business.
The final nail in the coffin came as filming on the show wrapped and Allen shared an Instagram post thanking the cast and crew which neglected to mention Pratchett at all. “This is the show-runner of The Watch, failing to thank MY FATHER,” tweeted a coldly furious Rhianna Pratchett. “This should tell you everything you need to know.” Later, when the first trailer dropped in October 2020, Pratchett fired out one last missive: “Look, I think it’s fairly obvious that [the show] shares no DNA with my father’s Watch. This is neither criticism nor support. It is what it is.” Since then Narrativia’s official channels have been entirely silent on the subject of The Watch, a show that still carries the company’s logo at the start of every episode.
What happens now? The future of Allen’s version hangs in the balance while the powers-that-be monitor its reception. Despite its flaws, it’s a visually striking show with great performances and just-enough Pratchett in the mix to keep it powered. A second series has potential, and the cast certainly deserve another run at it. Producers could even try to get the fanbase back onside with more faithful takes on Pratchett’s stories – a sort of reverse of Game of Thrones, which departed the books as it went along – there is, after all, plenty more source material available, though if Allen and his team hope to build bridges with the Estate they will have their work cut out. It may now be too late to course-correct.
As for future Pratchett adaptations, Narrativia announced a new deal back in April 2020 to bring several more properties to the screen, partnering with Motive Pictures, a British company under the umbrella of global behemoth Endeavour, which promises “absolutely faithful” versions of Discworld stories. While the ‘City Watch’ books remain tied up with BBC America for the time being, there are plenty of other tales to tell.
Meanwhile, an animated version of the Carnegie-Medal winning Discworld story The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents, starring Hugh Laurie and Emilia Clarke, is headed to the big screen in 2022. Remarkably, for an author who published his first novel in 1971 and who has been linked over the years with Disney, Spielberg, Terry Gilliam and Danny Boyle, it will be the first Terry Pratchett adaptation to reach cinemas. Whether fans will accept it, only time will tell.
The Watch is available in the US via BBC America and in Australia on Stan. There is, as yet, no news of a UK release. Both BBC America and Narrativia declined to take part in this feature.
Marc Burrows is the author of The Magic of Terry Pratchett, the first full biography of the late author.
Buy it directly from him here https://www.askmeaboutterrypratchett.com/