January 25, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘The Watch’ BBC America: A vivid spin on Terry Prachett books

Fantasy and science fiction are perfect vehicles for humor, and better with it than without. Given that all imaginative fiction is imagined by humans from Earth — any that you will get to read or watch, anyway — it is always really about the world we live in. Ironic distance and satire come with the territory.

Not all works of sci-fi and fantasy follow this path, of course; some writers, and some audiences, are inclined to take things dead seriously, and while this can be fine — “The War of the Worlds” is not a laugh riot — it can also lead to suffocating self-importance and a lack of fun. This is why the best contemporary “Star Wars” for my money is “Lego Star Wars,” and not the live-action franchise spending heaps of money to tell remarkably similar, not especially moving stories of Empire vs. Rebels/Republic and of parents and offspring (and offspring’s offspring) looking at one another from opposite sides of the Force. (The series works better with “Flash Gordon” as its lodestar than “The Golden Bough.”) “Star Trek” had this, centered around the worn-in double act of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, with its alchemical mix of overacting and underacting. But the best “Star Trek” movie is still “Galaxy Quest,” which has no problem sending up sci-fi tropes while remaining exciting and touching.

The setting for 41 novels, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a flat Earth balanced on four elephants standing on the back of a turtle, where physics are powered by magic and collective imagination, goes the comic route. Unlike the magisterial Middle-earth of “Lord of the Rings,” and its many imitators, everything here is a little shopworn, in various stages of decay and improvised repair — the characters as much as the world they inhabit. “Somewhere in a distant second hand dimension,” announces the title card at the beginning of “The Watch,” a Pratchett-based television series — not strictly speaking an adaptation — premiering Sunday on BBC America.

On the page, Pratchett’s dialogue often asks to be spoken in the voice of Peter Cook or Michael Palin — that he took inspiration from late 20th century British comedy is plain — while his narration would fit easily in the mouth of Peter Jones, the voice of the Book in the original radio production of Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Gallery,” which appeared in 1978, the year after the first “Star Wars” film was released. Adams, who wrote for the Tom Baker-era “Doctor Who” and was the rare outsider to receive a writing credit on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” is also very much a model for Pratchett’s creation, with its puckish variations of science and philosophy, its “Goon Show” logic and especially its embrace of banality and a vernacular voice in a genre that runs toward the mighty and marvelous.

Richard Dormer as Capt. Sam Vimes in “The Watch,” based on characters from Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” novels.

(Ilze Kitshoff/BBCA)

Neil Gaiman, who cowrote the comic pre-apocalypse novel “Good Omens” with Pratchett — its television adaptation was on my 2019 TV favorites list — expressed some skepticism last October upon the release of the first trailer for “The Watch”: “It’s not Batman if he’s now a news reporter in a yellow trenchcoat with a pet bat,” Gaiman tweeted, though I for one would be more liable to watch that Batman than any of his 21st century representations. Devoted readers are already picking it apart in various online comments departments.

I am familiar with Pratchett’s writing, and with the very watchable TV movies already made from two of his novels: “Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather,” from 2006, and the 2010 “Going Postal,” both of which give Pratchett a “mucked about by” credit following the screenwriters. But I have not extensively traveled in Discworld, and so do not approach “The Watch” under the burden of fanship, in the way that my love of Tintin made the Steven Spielberg film an intolerable experience. I can only say that, from the five episodes of “The Watch” available for review (out of eight), I like what creator/writer Simon Allen and his collaborators have made quite a bit.

As with 1989’s “Guards! Guards!,” the eighth Discworld novel, which introduces the constabulary Watch and some of the characters gathered here, it is a mystery story that involves dragons, a missing library book, and the administration of justice (or lack therof) in the city of Ankh-Morpork, where thieves and assassins have trade guilds and immunity from prosecution, as long as they stay within their quotas and leave a receipt. Led, sort of, by an often inebriated Capt. Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer), the Watch, whose ranks never swell here to more than five, has become largely irrelevant: “tree stuck up a cat, witch being sarcastic, sewer monster eating another street” are the sort of calls that come in. But, as happens in detective fiction, a seemingly mundane assignment will expose deeper fissures, just as the sudden reappearance of an old friend turned enemy — Samuel Adewumni’s Carcer Dun — will set Vimes on a new trajectory.

The performances give body and warmth to characters that can be broadly drawn. Painfully disheveled, by turn goggle-eyed and squinty, with a nasty-looking cigar typically parked in a corner of his mouth, Dormer plays Vimes like a piratical Popeye crossed with Warren Beatty in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” — it is nearly problematic, and takes a little getting used to, but is ultimately fine. His crew, of the motley sort familiar from any number of cop and mutant shows (straight or satirical) and superhero stories, is the usual unusual variety pack of straights and weirdos. Straightest of all — making him, contextually, a weirdo — is new recruit constable Carrot Ironfoundersson (Adam Hugill), fresh from the country, where he grew up the adopted human child of dwarves, and raring to serve.

Jo Eaton-Kent as Cpl. Cheery and Marama Corlett as Cpl. Angua in BBC America's "The Watch."

Jo Eaton-Kent as Cpl. Cheery and Marama Corlett as Cpl. Angua in BBC America’s “The Watch.”

(Ilze Kitshoff/BBC America)

Carrot’s less eager new colleagues include Sgt. Detritus (voiced by Ralph Ineson, embodied by Craig Macrea), a giant rock person; Cpl. Angua von Uberwald (Marama Corlett), a smoky-eyed werewolf; and forensic officer Cheery Littlebottom (Jo Eaton-Kent), who may remind you of Noel Fielding, because he did me. Cheery is portrayed as a non-binary human, which is already a source of controversy among fans of the books, who know the character as a female dwarf (which comes with some complicated gender business of its own.) But Eaton-Kent is excellent and the character works on their own terms. At one point the team will go undercover as a punk rock band. (The general style here, which is not Pratchett’s, is brutalist steampunk, with the emphasis on punk.)

Also significantly on hand are Lady Sybil Ramkin (Lara Rossi), an aristocratic vigilante/action heroine attempting to forcibly reform the city’s criminals through her Sunshine Rescue Centre for Bedraggled Things; the great Anna Chancellor as Lord Vetinari, in charge of everything (there is some pointed playing with pronouns in her/his case); the wizard Archchancellor of the Unseen University (James Fleet), who, due to a backfired curse, makes a musical noise whenever he attempts to curse; and Death (voiced by Wendell Pierce, embodied by Macrea again), who is weary, frustrated and looking for a little understanding. Plus, Matt Berry as a talking sword, and various imps, witches, dragons and goblins, an exploited race among whom revolution, or at least a demand for health care, may be stirring.

The series is framed as a police procedural, but also a contest for an object, and an answer, between better and worse factions, which is not quite to say good and bad. Given the dynamics of serial television, “The Watch” may be more conventional, and certainly simpler than, the books it draws from — there are 10 times as many Discworld novels as “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” combined. But it’s colorful and energetic and amusing, and full of interesting throwaway ideas (an alarm system that forces brawlers to become dancers; film as a series of paintings in the absence of photography) and gets you quickly interested in the fate of its broken characters, some of whom may also be on a road to love: what the Discworld, and our round one, needs now.