The Watch Made a Mess of Adapting Pratchett — But It Had Some Interesting Ideas

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Let me start by saying that I will not be arguing that The Watch—BBC Studios’ TV adaptation of some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels—is Good, Actually. It isn’t good: it’s a hot mess. But in amongst the janky chaos are some really interesting ideas that I want to honour before this whole thing sinks without a trace.

[Note: The following essay contains spoilers for S1 of The Watch]

Pratchett’s beloved novels are notoriously difficult to translate to the screen. The film versions have, largely, been thuddingly unfunny, mostly because they hew too closely to the text and refuse to make the changes necessary to make the most of the different medium. Going Postal did better as a mini-series and I see what The Watch was trying to do: take the core ideas and spirit of the novels and transliterate them into the format of a crime drama TV show. It was a good idea with poor execution. Quite apart from its troubled relationship with the source material, The Watch is just…not very good television. Other critics have pointed out its many flaws and I will not be listing them all here. Zack Handlen summed it up well in his thorough review for Polygon: “The pace is zippy enough that watching the show never becomes an active chore, but [Pratchett’s] charm is almost entirely absent.”

Before we get on to what I’d like to celebrate about The Watch, I must first mourn what they did to Lady Sybil Ramkin. I love that they cast a Black woman, and Lara Rossi did a fine job with the material she was given. But as for the rest!

What I love about Sybil in the books is that she is a fat, bald, middle-aged woman who is quietly confident in herself. She is a supporting character operating largely in the background because—I like to think—she doesn’t need the intense character development a book’s protagonist must go through in order to create a satisfying narrative arc. Sybil is already complete unto herself. The older I get, the more I am drawn to her mana and self-knowledge.

The Watch takes this wonderful, subtle person, makes her thin and young and gorgeous, and puts her through the Strong Female Character mill. As Sophia McDougall wrote in her seminal 2013 essay “I hate Strong Female Characters”, the trouble with SFCs is that they respond to the problem of shitty representation of women as sexpot/victims by simply making them feisty and good at punching. This completely flattens the characterful variety and moral complexity of women. The Watch makes Sybil not only good at violence (HASHTAG STRONG) but has her fall into the Batman trap: somehow ‘fighting crime’ (and even getting revenge for murdered parents, sigh) by assaulting individual poor people, vigilante-style. We learn that Sybil has been using her aristocratic privilege not to, for example, improve public health, but instead to kidnap street people and forcibly re-educate them into being good citizens who don’t do crimes no more. (Literally, she chains them to desks at her Sunshine Rescue Centre for Broken and Bedraggled Things.) It’s like a pscyhosexual MRA fever dream of the project of feminism: individual men being forced into SJW submission by a sexy woman. Thanks, I hate it.

Screenshot: BBC

(The only thing I can think to say in the show’s defence is that by the end of the season, Sybil has grudgingly decided to give up vigilantism in favour of attempting institutional reform—but you have to really squint to catch this development in amongst the overburdened plot strands. It’s her horrifying ‘Rescue Centre’ that sticks in the memory.)

This is a particularly baffling giant misstep for a show that otherwise has an enthusiastic approach to upending gender norms and diving headlong into an exploration of gender freedom. (I’m trying not to use the phrase ‘embrace diversity’ because it makes me think of the gag in one of the Moist von Lipwig books in which a character mishears it as ‘embrace divertingly.’) Dr Cruces of the Assassins Guild has been gender-swapped, played by Ingrid Oliver, whose slow slide into feral rage over the course of the show’s eight episodes is a joy to witness. (As a side note, the Assassins Guild is one of the things I think The Watch gets right, really leaning into their effete vanity and out-of-control cosplay viciousness.) More interestingly, Lord Vetinari remains a male character—referred to in-universe as he/him, ‘sir’ and ‘Lord’—but is played by female actor Anna Chancellor. The show never explains this and is the better for it.

I also love that Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler has been reimagined as a disabled woman who uses a wheelchair. It is so rare to see a disabled character who is neither noble nor pitiable, and—importantly—who is neither cured nor dies. Instead, Throat in The Watch—as in the books—is a sleazy small-time crook, constantly on the take, and by the final episode she is thriving.

Throat is played by disabled actor and wheelchair user Ruth Madeley. I wish this were not notable: I wish it were standard practice to employ disabled actors to play disabled characters. So that is something else The Watch got right—though it’s a pretty damn low bar to clear. (But if they were open to employing actors with marginalised bodies why on earth couldn’t they retain Sybil’s fatness? Is it because they couldn’t conceive of a character being fat while also feistily kicking ass? And why are none of the dwarf characters played by little people? Aaargh!)

Screenshot: BBC

Where The Watch really shines, though, is in its depiction of Cheery Littlebottom; making her transness—a long-running sub-plot in the books—gloriously centre stage. Cheery is a dwarf who uses she/her pronouns at the beginning of the show, and they/them by the end. Cheery is played by with an engaging combination of flair and gravitas by genderqueer actor Jo Eaton-Kent. In the world of both the books and the show, dwarfish society is what we might call comp-masc; that is, weighed down with a compulsory masculinity whereby everybody, regardless of gender identity, has to present as male or risk ostracism, or worse. The ‘worse’ in the show is being left for dead to be consumed by The Dark. The Watch diverts from the books by repurposing The Dark—instead of a demonic entity or mine sign it becomes a force of gender euphoria.

At one point the plot requires that Cheery, Carrot, and Angua go back to Cheery’s home mine in order to search for one of the various maguffins with which The Watch is overloaded. They all wear beards in order to comply with the comp-masc rules. But Cheery is betrayed, and she and Angua are chained down and have their beards stripped from their faces so that The Dark will come for them. Angua is unaffected by The Dark but Cheery has a revelation.

When Cheery is enveloped by The Dark she reconnects with her mother, who she realises is not dead but has instead ascended to a new plane where her previously forbidden femininity can run gorgeously rampant. Cheery’s mother explains that The Dark is not a threat but a multidimensional source of freedom and power. I love this idea and I think The Watch gets the tone right as well: gender policing (i.e. transphobia) as a social force is taken seriously but there’s also an explosive playfulness to it all, along with some splendidly camp costuming. (That pink wig! I love it.) I also love the way that the gender binary is left far behind, and gender freedom is presented instead as a joyous, endless range of options. Cheery tells Angua that The Dark is “an infinity of all that I can be, and there’s no shame, there’s no right or wrong; in there you can be anything, everything.” Cheery leaves the mine on her own terms, reclaims her beard, and wears it with a pink dress.

Screenshot: BBC

Thus fortified, Cheery goes on to be instrumental in solving the central problem in The Watch: a dragon is attacking Ankh-Morpork and can only be stopped using—wait for it—the power of song (oh did I mention that the City Watch had formed a band? FFS). It’s a great message about the freedom and strength derived from embracing one’s own identity fully, and succeeds despite the eye-rolling ridiculousness of the plot.

On balance, then, I’m glad I watched the show. That said, I know that The Watch has disappointed and even enraged fans, and I can understand why. For myself, I am mostly irritated that in this golden age of television, The Watch is unforgivably incoherent and a real missed opportunity.

If I’m being honest, part of my irritation comes from the fact that I have some personal headcanon that I’m irrationally offended The Watch didn’t include. Carrot and Angua’s romantic relationship in the books skeeves me out. This is partly because I find Carrot creepy; partly because I like to read Angua as gay (and…you know…married to me, obviously); and partly just because Pratchett is at his weakest when writing sex and romance. The Watch addresses this somewhat: Carrot has merely some run-of-the-mill folksy charm rather than the spooky, manipulative charisma he exhibits in the books, and the show goes out of its way to establish that he definitely isn’t a chosen one of any kind.

And they were so close to making Angua gay! As a werewolf Angua is already a queer-coded character, with an essential identity she has to keep secret in order to avoid becoming a social outcast. Whereas in the books Angua in human form is classically white-feminine (conventionally attractive with long blonde hair), The Watch makes Angua short, butch, and grubby with spiky hair (SO GAY YOU GUYS). Marama Corlett does a good job of conveying the tightrope Angua walks between her physical strength and her social vulnerability. I did hope that with trans and disabled characters in the mix we might also get an openly gay werewolf, but alas—The Watch retains the Carrot/Angua ship. If any fanfiction writers want to fix this for me I would be very grateful. (Please note that my name is spelled with a z, thank you.) I will continue to believe in my heart that Angua is bisexual like me and that we are meant to be together. Maybe I can find her in The Dark.

My ancestors come from England
I am here in Aotearoa New Zealand by virtue of the Treaty of Waitangi
I was born in Auckland in the traditional tribal area of the Ngāti Whātua tribe
Waitematā Harbour is the body of water that is special to me
Mount Albert is the mountain that is special to me
I now live in Wellington in the traditional tribal area of the Te Āti Awa tribe
My name is Elizabeth Heritage

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