Why the Watchmen TV Series Should Be Set in Present Day

The Doomsday Clock, which was ubiquitous in Watchmen and at the height of the Cold War, has become relevant again as the Washington Post reported on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration that it had been moved to 2 ½ minutes to midnight. In Watchmen, Richard Nixon was still the president in 1985, having expanded the term limits and the powers of the presidency since he took office in 1968. In real life, we’ve seen the massive expansion of presidential power as oversight has diminished. By bringing Watchmen into the modern world, we can explore the growing surveillance state begun by the Patriot Act and exposed by the NSA document leaks of 2013. For the show, this can all be elaborations of the Keene Act, which made vigilantes illegal. Here, it can be updated to include advanced surveillance methods to make sure that Americans are following the rules.

On the international stage, Watchmen drew heavily from the Cold War as a necessary motive for Veidt’s actions. Currently, with Russian President Vladimir Putin obtaining more power and becoming ever more aggressive given his actions in the Ukraine and Georgia, many have suggested that the world is moving towards a new Cold War. In all of this, however, is a strange dangling thread called Tales of the Black Freighter.

The story-within-the-story is a necessary thematic addition to the Watchmen narrative. The unnamed sea captain from Black Freighter is forced to shed his morals and inhibitions to achieve his goal of returning home before the evil on the freighter arrives to destroy his family and the town they live in. His decline and descent are similar to Veidt’s (even the metaphoric usage of dead bodies comes into play). Moore felt that since superheroes were real (and objects of derision) in-universe, comics would no longer have a use for them. People were more interested in human tales featuring throwback concepts: cowboys, pirates, etc. However, things are different in our world too. Despite its quality, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has made pirate stories popular and lucrative for the first time. Perhaps Moore was again just ahead of his time, but the media landscape has changed. It’s unfortunate to say, but nobody cares about comics anymore.

Black Freighter in the Watchmen comic

Comic book sales have never quite recovered from the '90s crash, and it’s rare for a comic book to get mainstream media attention. Whether the modern Watchmen wants to still keep story pirate-themed is up to taste (and truly irrelevant so long as the thematic elements remain). The true alteration needs to come in the method in which it is consumed. Since 1985, an entire generation has grown up on Batman: The Animated Series, seen video games go from side-scrollers to biblical epics, and seen television move from the living room and into our hands. Having the story exist in a new media format would be audacious, but an even bigger risk would be if it was brought into the story as a VR program.

The technology is still growing—very few have access to it—but using VR would add to the texture of the series. VR is a simulacrum of real life, as all entertainment is. However, it is meant to be more life-like than anything else. Imagine a perfected VR existing in Watchmen where the line between real and fake is too opaque for the brain to delineate; that's how Bernard would injest the Black Freighter story. WB could also release a VR game of Black Freighter to tie-in to the series. This would work as a commentary on the relevance we place on fictional stories or the unclear moralities of characters like Veidt, the Comedian, and Rorschach. By having the player commit the violent and desperate acts of the protagonist sea captain, it would indict us as knowing accessories. We’re committing the same actions that the villains do because it’s what the program would have us do. Or, in Veidt’s mind, he’s doing this because it’s the right thing to do. For the player, the line between right and wrong is then as difficult to see as it is for the characters in Watchmen itself.

Alan Moore’s Watchmen repeatedly made use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a-Changin’.” Even if a segment of fans decry the modernization of Watchmen, an update has the potential to flow poetically from the heart of the text.

NEXT: Leftovers’ Damon Lindelof Developing Watchmen TV Series at HBO

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