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Watch Out

The cast of BBC America’s The Watch. From left to right: Cheery, Angua, Lady Sybil (YES), Vimes, Detritus, Carrot.

BBC America has released a trailer for its upcoming series The Watch, nominally based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, specifically the ones set in Ankh Morpork and among the officers of the city watch. I know that there are a lot of Discworld fans among the commentariat here, and that Sam Vimes, the irritable, fallible, but deeply principled watch commander, has many admirers here. So I thought you might like to suffer along with me.


I mean, it’s not all bad: Cheery is being played by a non-binary actor (Jo Eaton-Kent). And that’s Anna Chancellor as Patrician Vetinari. On the other hand, we’ve got Vimes as a cut-rate Jack Sparrow. Even worse, the woman with the axes and the green jacket? That’s Sybil Ramkin, who is here, according to the show description, a vigilante hunting down criminals that the Ankh Morpork watch can’t touch.

I hope this is clear, but just to state it outright: casting a black actress as Sybil Ramkin is fantastic and should be entirely uncontroversial. Casting a young, thin actress as Sybil Ramkin—who is still Vimes’s love interest—is bad but sadly par for the course. Making Sybil Ramkin a vigilante—and nevertheless, still Vimes’s love interest—indicates a complete misreading not only of the character, but of the series and what it was trying to say about policing and justice. The Watch isn’t a straight adaptation of any of the novels, and it has been disavowed by Pratchett’s daughter Rhianna (who recently called the series’s creators to task for not even acknowledging her father in a post thanking the people who made the show possible). But it still hurts that there’s now going to be an entire generation of people for whom Sam Vimes is nothing more than a fantasy-world Gene Hunt, and Sybil Ramkin is Daredevil with better hair.

What makes the whole thing particularly frustrating is that I can hardly think of a better time for a series that adapts the Watch novels as they actually were, and captures what they had to say about policing. People here are fond of the Sam Vimes “Boots” Theory of Economic Injustice, but just as important to Vimes’s character is the moment when he arrested two armies for starting an affray, or “a watchman is a civilian, you inbred streak of piss!” Sam Vimes rejects vigilantism not because he thinks the law is perfect—he knows it isn’t—but because he understands that justice done in the darkness isn’t justice at all. He is a man perpetually frustrated by the limitations of the law—including limitations built into the system, the things that are legal and the crimes that are never pursued because they’re too big to even comprehend. But he also knows that the minute he takes the law into his own hands, he ceases to be a policeman.

Am I wrong, or is this not exactly the sort of story we could use right now, in this era of copaganda? It’s a shame that, once again, what we’re going to get a cheekily dark story about how vigilantism is OK when the right people do it, made by people who don’t understand how that kind of storytelling leads directly to this.

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