The 1999 TV series, which ran from September 28, 1999, to December 4, 2001, on YTV in Canada and CITV in the UK, occupies an interesting and controversial place within the Watership Down fandom. It was created as a co-production between Martin Rosen’s Nepenthe Productions company, another British company called Alltime Entertainment, and a Canadian company called Decode Entertainment (now known as DHX Media Toronto). Mary Crawford and Alan Templeton would head the writing team.
The explicit aim of the show’s creators was to create a version of the Watership Down story that was more family-friendly, avoiding the baggage that the film carried with it. As such, the creators toned down much of the violence and changed several of the characters. Perhaps the most infamous of these changes was turning Blackberry into a doe, as well as turning Pipkin into a child instead of a timid runt rabbit. Some characters were removed entirely (most notably Silver), while others were replaced with original characters. Hyzenthlay, for instance, was replaced by a character named Primrose, presumably because they thought kids would have too hard a time pronouncing her original name. For similar reasons, El-ahrairah was shortened to El-ahrah (which, amusingly enough, changes his name to “enemy prince” in Lapine).
One might expect the series to be kiddie nonsense with all of those changes, right? And yet, several Watership Down fans argue that this series is even better than the film adaptation. I remember agreeing with them back when I first watched all 39 episodes on YouTube the first time. Rewatching it for this retrospective, on the other hand… it’s definitely not terrible, and the writers were still clearly trying to stay true to the mature storytelling of the novel as best they could, even with the younger audience in mind. However, it was also clear that the series still has some significant problems holding it back. Perhaps the best way to explain how would be to examine all three seasons individually to show how the series evolved.
The first episode, “The Promised Land,” launches somewhat abruptly in the middle of the action with the rabbits already on their journey, with Sandleford Warren nowhere in sight. Indeed, Sandleford Warren is practically a ghost during the entire series, mentioned several times before and after its destruction but never seen in person. This is somewhat understandable given that Sandleford’s fate would probably be the hardest sequence to make family-friendly given the wholesale mass slaughter. Still, it does make the series start off rather awkwardly.
We are then introduced to our rag-tag band of hlessil for this adaptation, consisting of seven rabbits: Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Blackberry, Pipkin, Dandelion, and Hawkbit (making his adaptation debut).
One may notice the changes that several of the characters have gone through right away. The central trio of Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig are still relatively unchanged (although Fiver seems less melancholic and more at peace with himself). As noted above, though, Pipkin was aged down to become more of a kid-appeal character while Blackberry was gender-flipped, presumably to add more diversity to the cast. Dandelion has become much more of a comical figure (possibly having been combined with Bluebell, also absent for this adaptation), while Hawkbit has an entirely new personality. While described as “a rather slow and stupid rabbit” in the book, here he is a grouchy pessimist who rarely lets a situation pass without a sarcastic remark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he seems to be a fan favorite among people who actually like the series.
Another thing one might notice is that the animation is a lot more vibrant and colorful than the film adaptation. It’s also definitely TV quality, meaning that it’s often limited and sometimes goes off-model. Still, it does get the job done, at least.
There’s also the voice cast for this adaptation, which dispenses with the wary and urgent tone taken by the actors in the film adaptation and uses a more standard delivery. Some voice actors are better than others at capturing the spirit of their characters. Ian Shaw and Andrew Falvey were well cast as Hazel and Fiver, respectively, and Lee Ross’s nasally sharp voice lends itself exceptionally well to Hawkbit’s biting sarcasm. Steve Mangan’s performance as Bigwig seems a little off at first, given how he seems to follow a more exaggerated drill instructor-type performance, but his interpretation still grows on you. Phil Jupitus as Dandelion, on the other hand, tends to get on a lot of fans’ nerves thanks to how high-pitched and screechy his voice is. While I don’t dislike his performance as much as others, I still never really got used to it since it seemed way too cartoonish and exaggerated even for this show.
Another criticism I have of this episode is that it ends with the rabbits reaching Watership Down by the end, which I feel cheapens the drama around the actual journey, especially since Cowslip’s warren is completely bypassed. Granted, it does show up two episodes later, but I still think placing it after the arrival on the Down was a mistake.
I do kind of like the idea of Kehaar meeting the rabbits before they arrive at the Down, and it certainly works with the more friendly and less acerbic personality that the gull gets in this adaptation. A part of me wonders if keeping his more brash and aggressive side would have made much better use of Rik Mayall’s comedic talents, but his voice work for the character still gets a few laughs. His early arrival also helps establish the new talent that Pipkin was given in this adaptation, making friends with practically any animal species that isn’t elil.
Kehaar is also joined by a new character named Hannah, a spunky field mouse voiced by Jane Horrocks. There’s not a lot to say about her. She gets in fights with Bigwig. She befriends other animals alongside Pipkin. She takes advantage of her small size to help the rabbits spy on Efrafa later on. I’ll have a bit more say when we get to what the writers did with her in season three, but that’s a ways off.
As for Doe! Blackberry, I tend to believe that she gets a lot more hate than she deserves. Many fans argue that making her a doe undermines the whole reason why the rabbits had to infiltrate Efrafa in the first place. Since the warren now has a doe, they’re all set, right? Not really. Do you really expect one doe to be able to populate an entire warren? Plus, just one doe would mean that the bucks would constantly be at each other’s throats trying to win the right to mate with her. Indeed, in the book, even after Hazel nearly kills himself getting the two hutch does from Nuthanger Farm back to the Down, he’s still worried about the bucks getting in fights and decides to raid Efrafa anyway.
That being said, though, it quickly becomes apparent that once Blackberry finishes designing the new warren and discovers the boat that helps the Watershippers outrun Woundwort, the writers had no idea what to do with her. She never joins the other rabbits on their various misadventures and pretty much fades into the background until Woundwort’s attack on the warren at the end of Season Two. But, again, more on that later.
Speaking of Woundwort, though, let’s talk about how Efrafa is portrayed in the series. Hazel’s voice actor from the film, John Hurt, returns to voice Woundwort.
Many of the characters introduced in Efrafa are vibrant and interesting, especially this series’ version of Vervain, Woundwort’s chief enforcer. Here he is portrayed as a cowardly sleazebag with a strong vendetta against Captain Campion, Woundwort’s chief Owsla officer. Woundwort himself is appropriately savage and intimidating, even with more kid-friendly restraints placed on him.
However, his motivations become somewhat muddled when it comes to the reasons he wants Watership Down destroyed. In the book, it was because he was angry at Bigwig for betraying his trust and “kidnapping” some of his subjects. Here, Hazel and Fiver introduce themselves to Woundwort before Bigwig and, aware of Efrafa’s vicious and bloodthirsty reputation, ask Woundwort which he prefers: War or peace? Life or death? He tells Hazel and Fiver to reveal the location of their warren or be executed, and the two are only saved when Fiver has a vision of Woundwort’s past that enrages but also intrigues the General. We don’t get any sense that Woundwort is doing this because he thinks he’s protecting rabbits from men and elil. Here he seems to be doing it simply because he’s a power-hungry bully.
In any case, the central conflict for the next two seasons is the rabbits trying to keep Woundwort from finding Watership Down. They accomplish this way too easily, considering that the distances between the warrens have obviously been shrunk down from what they were in the book. The rabbits even find a cave system under the Down at one point that they use as a secret passage to and from Efrafa, meaning that the rival warren is literally just down the hill from them!
Another change related to Efrafa that definitely wasn’t for the better was what the writers did with Hyzenthlay, or Primrose, as the writers renamed her. Hyzenthlay is a clever and cunning rabbit who proves her leadership capabilities by helping Bigwig orchestrate the breakout from Efrafa, has visions similar to Fiver’s, and is later promoted to co-chief rabbit alongside Hazel. On the other hand, Primrose often comes across as selfish and manipulative, especially when she drags Hazel on an adventure to her old warren, Redstone, in episode nine, even after Fiver has a vision that the warren is empty. They find it to be true, except for the aging former Owsla Captain Broom. While it is nice to hear Richard Briers (Fiver’s voice actor from the film) again, I’ll admit that the character doesn’t really do much, even when he’s given more screentime in season three.
Also, one more thing about Efrafa that really bugs me in the show: Whenever the series comes back to Efrafa, there are these animalistic noises that sound nothing like its rabbit inhabitants echoing through the runs. Where are these sounds coming from? Is there a portal to the Amazon rainforest hidden somewhere? Did Woundwort make a deal with Bunny Satan, and the sounds are the devil’s minions watching over him to make sure he keeps up his end of the bargain? Seriously, what the hell are they?! I know it’s the sound designers trying way too hard to show us how eeeeeevil Efrafa is, but I feel like there were far more subtle ways to accomplish it.
If there is one thing that the writers of the series improved on compared to the film, though, it would be Cowslip’s warren. This version of the story has Captain Holly leading Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver back to the warren to retrieve his friend Pimpernel. Once there, the group slowly starts getting seduced by the “easy life” offered by the rabbits’ seemingly symbiotic relationship with the local farmer… until Bigwig nearly dies in a snare, and the rabbits quickly put two and two together.
With the show dedicating a whole 20+ minute episode to the Warren of the Snares, as opposed to the five minutes the film gave us, we get to see the true existential horror of Cowslip’s warren, which still carries its potency even if they aren’t allowed to show blood during Bigwig’s strangulation. Indeed, the only time blood shows up at all in the series is when Hazel gets shot during the hutch rabbit breakout in episode six, whereas all the rabbit fights only leave red scratches that don’t bleed.
Also helping the creepy atmosphere is how Cowslip, voiced by Stephen Fry in this version, is portrayed. Toward the end of the episode, after the Watership rabbits confront Cowslip, Cowslip reveals how insane living under the shadow of the shining wires has turned him. “They won’t get me! They might get others, but never me!” he cries after Hazel tells him he doesn’t need to surrender to the wires and backs slowly into a burrow, laughing like a hyena. The Watershippers book it out of there, along with Strawberry, tired of living under the shadow of the wires.
In all, the series so far is a relatively faithful adaptation of the book, even if the writers somewhat butchered the original tone to appeal to a more general audience. The characters are enjoyable, the voice cast is good, and the story is fairly consistent, even if the main villain’s motivations are somewhat muddled. I’ll give season one a 7/10.
In the first episode, season Two starts well enough with Pipkin becoming a prisoner in Efrafa, with Woundwort using him as a bargaining chip to get Hazel and company to surrender. However, things become complicated when Woundwort starts bonding with Pipkin over their shared backstory of losing their parents to a weasel, even coming to view Pipkin as something of a son to him.
One would think something like this would develop into a significant plot thread given how much of a disruption it would be to the two warrens’ dynamic. But this is not to be, since their relationship is practically forgotten about after Pipkin stops Bigwig from killing Woundwort at the end of the episode. Indeed, the only time it comes up again is in the series finale twenty-five episodes later, when Pipkin explains to Hazel and Primrose’s kittens why he thinks Woundwort is so driven to sow chaos and destruction wherever he goes.
Indeed, Season Two is often considered the worst season by most fans of the series, mostly because over half of the episodes can be regarded as filler episodes. Indeed, out of the thirteen episodes broadcast this season, eight (!) have little to nothing to do with the central conflict with Efrafa.
Some of these filler episodes are better than others. “The Orchard,” for instance, has Fiver befriending a lonely badger named Bark living in an apple orchard near Nuthanger Farm and even has a cute running gag where she keeps offering Fiver apples even long after he’s grown sick of them. The two-part Christmas special is also an enjoyable adventure, even if the idea of the rabbits having a solstice holiday (hell, the thought of them having holidays at all) seems rather far-fetched. The writers could have easily had them go on this adventure without a Christmastime-type feast hanging over their heads.
More often than not, though, the plots for these filler episodes seem rather inane and contrived. There’s an episode where the rabbits travel with Kehaar to the “peeg vater” on what looks like the Cliffs of Dover, which should be impossible since the Cliffs are over 100 miles away from the Hampshire Downs. In another episode, a pair of con-artist rabbits arrive at Watership Down claiming to be messengers of Prince Rainbow, who manage to convince Pipkin he can fly, leading to predictable shenanigans. Another one manages to include the “leading a dog onto Watership Down” plot point from the novel. Instead of leading it onto Woundwort, however, it’s to chase away an escaped flock of sheep that are ruining the ecosystem on the Down.
All of this filler tends to make the actual plot feel far more dragged out than it should. One major flaw of the episode with Bark the badger is that it is plopped between two episodes where Captain Campion is being held prisoner in Efrafa under suspicion that he is spying for the Watershippers (he has been since the Season One finale, but the Efrafans don’t know that yet). That problem is resolved in the next episode where the Watership rabbits stage an elaborate plan inspired by “The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah” to make Vervain look insane so that Woundwort will let Campion off the hook. After that conflict is resolved, the series goes through five more filler episodes before the Efrafans finally find the cave system under the Down and attack in the second season finale.
However, there are several positives to this season that save from being a total loss. There’s an interesting subplot where two rabbits from Cowslip’s warren named Hickory and Marigold seek the Watership rabbits’ help in establishing a warren of their own. They settle in at the former Redstone warren but are almost taken by Efrafa when Cowslip and Woundwort briefly join forces. Captain Broom manages to scare the Efrafans away by convincing them that the “great sickness” that decimated his warren years ago is still active. This eventually leads to Campion’s arrest when Woundwort, enraged that Cowslip apparently lied to him, leads the Efrafans to attack the Warren of the Shining Wires, only for Campion to warn him of said wires. It’s a fairly well-executed subplot, even if hearing Hickory and Marigold speaking with American accents is somewhat jarring (Hickory is even voiced by Keifer Sutherland of all people).
The season finale is definitely the best episode of this season. Woundwort finally leads his army up the caves to attack the Watershippers, only to give up the attack after Campion seemingly sacrifices himself to save Woundwort from a falling boulder. It’s got the drama and stakes that any Watership Down adaptation worth its salt should have, even if, again, blood is absent for the benefit of the younger audience.
Overall, this season has some good ideas that expand nicely on the source material. But on the other, it has several filler episodes filled with inane and contrived ideas that definitely stretch the bounds of credulity. And I’m giving this season a 6/10 (it’s closer to a 5 than a 7).
Season Three has somewhat divided fans of the TV series due to the completely different direction that both the art style and writing took. A lot of fans tend to agree that the third season is undoubtedly the best thanks not only to the story being far more consistent and straightforward than the previous two seasons (with little to no filler to be seen) but also because the series took a much darker and more dramatic turn that brought it much closer to the original tone of the book (though still no blood, because kid show). On the other hand, others tend to dislike the characters’ redesigns, the fact that none of the celebrity voice actors returned (aside from Richard Briers), as well as some admittedly far-fetched story elements revolving around magic. While I mostly fall into the former camp, I still have plenty of problems with this season that keep me from ranking it any higher than “good.”
Perhaps we should start with the most obvious change one observes when watching the first episode of the season: the art style change.
The character designs became more angular, and the animation became much cleaner, although some animation slip-ups still occur from time to time, like this one from S3E11.
Another thing one might notice right away is the change in voice actors. As mentioned before, Richard Briers is still there voicing Captain Broom, although his voice sounds oddly deeper than in the previous seasons. But, sadly, John Hurt, Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, Jane Horrocks, and many others are gone, likely victims of budget cuts. Not that any of their replacements are bad (Woundwort’s new voice actor manages to make his own menacing spin on the character, even if his line delivery feels off at points), but their respective talents are definitely a big loss.
Let’s talk about the story. Efrafa finally falls in the first episode after Hazel gathers an army consisting of rabbits and several other animals that the Watershippers have befriended since coming to the Down, including Bark, the badger. Woundwort is presumed dead but comes back, eventually bringing his former toady Vervain back under his command. He briefly manages to take over Redstone Warren but is forced to leave when a human road crew plows it over to make room for a new highway (Hickory, Marigold, and co. manage to make it out just fine). Woundwort makes a bargain with Cowslip to attain the services of his seer, Silverweed, and he takes his followers to his former home, a warren called Darkhaven, where a group of warlike rabbits lives in a junkyard awaiting the arrival of the “Dark One.”
Much to his surprise, though, he finds his former captain of Owsla, Campion, waiting for him there. Campion has been secretly nursing himself back to health in the wilderness surrounding Watership Down, with only Pipkin knowing he’s there. Woundwort welcomes him back, much to Vervain’s chagrin. But little does he know that the Black Rabbit himself has tasked Campion with stopping Woundwort’s threat to the world of the living. He manages to liberate Silverweed from Darkhaven’s clutches and deliver him to the Watershippers, although he and Blackberry manage to escape suspicion for their role in this.
Oh yeah, speaking of Blackberry: By this time, the Watershippers have learned Pipkin’s secret, and Blackberry, who very suddenly fell in love with Campion during Woundwort’s invasion at the end of season two, is determined to bring him back to Watership Down. She ends up becoming a prisoner of war in Darkhaven instead, with a warrior doe named Spartina, chosen by Woundwort to spy on the Watershippers, using her as a chess piece to keep Campion in line. She threatens to have her companion Granite kill Blackberry if she doesn’t return by the next full moon.
But this plan is complicated by two factors. First, Blackberry ends up saving Granite’s life when he’s badly wounded by a falling rock, even though this is against Darkhaven law, and she nearly gets herself executed over it. He resolves to help her and Campion escape, but Woundwort catches them in the act and threatens to execute Blackberry himself if Campion doesn’t lead him to Watership Down. Second, Spartina ends up enraptured by Watership Down and even falls in love with Bigwig. Unfortunately, she is also marked for execution after Vervain catches her trying to break Campion and Blackberry out. And so Woundwort finally comes to Watership Down to wipe Hazel’s warren from existence forever.
But before we discuss how the series resolves this storyline, let’s examine where it succeeds and fails.
One element that I liked was that Pipkin finally showed signs of aging. The fact that he remained a kitten for two seasons that spanned across a year really doesn’t make sense when you consider that European rabbits usually reach sexual maturity at only three months. True, he’s technically still a kitten here, but he’s definitely more adolescent here than in previous seasons.
There’s also been a clear development in Vervain’s character here, as he’s grown slightly more of a backbone. For example, when Woundwort tries to attack a poacher that is menacing Redstone Warren and gets himself and Vervain captured, Vervain lets loose on Woundwort, berating him for likely getting them killed with his mindless pursuit of his “destiny.” Sadly, Woundwort’s delusions of grandeur are only reinforced when a police officer arrests the poacher and releases them. Vervain also shows visible disgust at the joy Woundwort and Cowslip take at watching Redstone fall to man’s bulldozers, not lifting a finger to help fellow rabbits in distress.
Darkhaven is a fascinating plot point, especially due to the hints we get to their past as escapees from “man’s hutches.” A part of me wonders if the Darkhaven rabbits’ backstory is like that of the rats in Don Bluth’s The Secret of Nimh, where they gained their large size, musculature, and aggressive temper from experiments that human scientists did on them. They work well as new enemies for the Watership rabbits, allowing the writers not to overextend the Efrafa subplot any more than they already had.
There are a few issues I have with several characters in this season. One example is Spartina, the Darkhaven rabbit with the most characterization. After Blackberry is taken as a hostage, Spartina gets her enrolled in a sort of class with the Speaker of the Past (a quasi-shamanistic character who teaches about the history of Darkhaven), so she doesn’t have to participate in the warren’s frequent fighting matches. When Blackberry asks Spartina why she’s helping her, the Darkhaven doe replies, “Because no one helped me when I came here.” You would think the writers would use this as a jumping-off point to discuss her backstory eventually, but nope! We never learn anything more about her past, even after she switches sides and joins Hazel and co. Speaking of which, her conversion is so sudden it almost induces whiplash. She spends most of episode 36 firmly supportive of Woundwort, gets enraptured by Watership Down’s beauty at the end, and then is entirely on the good guys’ side by the next episode. It’s enough to make you wonder if you missed an episode.
The romance between Campion and Blackberry also tends to be a sticking point for series fans, mainly because it came right the hell out of nowhere in the season two finale. Blackberry and Campion suddenly experience love at first sight when Campion warns Hazel that Vervain has found the cave system. When Campion seemingly dies under a large boulder, she mourns his death as if she’s known him for years, as does Campion whenever he’s around Pipkin. Sure, some of their moments together in the third season are kind of cute, but the way the writers set the whole situation up in the first place kind of makes it feel hollow, as if they were trying way too hard to find something for Blackberry to do since she did so little in the previous two seasons.
But both of those elements pale in comparison to the controversial way the writers decided to end the series, and to talk about that, we need to talk about season three’s magic subplot. One thing I didn’t mention in that plot summary up above is that Hannah the mouse, feeling useless because she has no way to help Hazel and the others, learns about hedge wizards from Yona, the local hedgehog, and ends up receiving magical powers from an ancient turtle that lives on an island in the middle of a lake. However, she ends up having it taken away from her by Silverweed at the end, so she doesn’t have to suffer the horrible fate he has foreseen for those who use the magic…
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, this is supposed to be about a bunch of normal-ass rabbits trying to make a living in the English countryside, right?” Well, yes, but remember, this is a kid’s show, and the only other way to resolve the final battle with Woundwort and his army would be a bloody brawl like in the book, and we can’t have that, no sir! So what better way than to have one of the rabbits do a ritual chant to summon the Black Rabbit of Inle to suck Woundwort and his soldiers through a portal to the spirit world, where that can’t harm a living soul ever again.
Granted, this wasn’t the only supernatural element that appeared in the series. There was also a subplot where Woundwort was using Silverweed to spy on Watership Down by having him exploit a psychic trick where he can see through someone Fiver’s eyes. Fiver later turns this trick back on him to help Blackberry and Campion break him out of Darkhaven. This seems a bit far-fetched compared to the book, but psychic abilities exist in both works, so I was willing to forgive it. However, the subplot with Hannah’s magic was a bridge too far from the source material’s realistic approach. It just felt like the writers trying too hard to distance themselves from any elements of the book they thought might make kids uncomfortable.
The way the ending of the last episode immediately following the Black Rabbit’s departure plays out also leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The episode goes on for literally only a minute afterward, with the other rabbits learning that Silverweed was rapidly aged by the magic he took from Hannah. He tells the other rabbits that he’s happy because Watership Down is finally safe, they return to their burrows without saying anything, and the whole series ends right there! As the Angry Video Game Nerd would say, “What a shitload of fuck!”
Also, the fortifications the rabbits make around Watership Down before Woundwort’s arrival feel way too sophisticated.
When I first watched the series back in my high school years, I thought it was a masterpiece of TV animation. Having seen shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Gravity Falls, and Fullmetal Alchemist since then, however… yeah, this series doesn’t hold a candle to those shows at all. The story often feels like it’s working against the source material, the violence that was so essential to its lasting impact has been excised, and the animation isn’t anything to write home about.
The Watership Down purists will definitely look down upon the show for these reasons, but it still has plenty to offer for less demanding fans. The characters are still likable, the stakes still feel real, the writers were clearly trying to avoid talking down to their audience, and the voice cast was excellent.
Also, the soundtrack made for the series by Mike Batt, the original writer of “Bright Eyes,” is absolutely gorgeous. The orchestral suite sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place in a Lord of the Rings adaptation, with soaring tracks like “The Beginning Overture,” “On Watership Down,” and “Fantasia on a Flying Theme,” tense and harrowing tracks like “Military Theme and Development” and “Chase Adventure,” and the Christmas cheer of “Winter on Watership Down.” Be forewarned, though; some of these tracks tend to be overplayed in the series itself, most notably “Chase Adventure.”
There are also several new songs that Batt composed for the series. Batt himself performs “The View from a Hill,” Paul Carrack of Mike and the Mechanics fame performs “Winter Song,” and Cerys Matthews of the Welsh alternative band Catatonia performs “Thank You, Stars.” “Bright Eyes” also makes an appearance, this time performed by the late Stephen Gately of the Irish boyband Boyzone. All of these tracks are great folksy pop pieces worthy of the Watership Down legacy. However, I didn’t really find Gately’s version of “Bright Eyes” as emotionally impactful as Art Garfunkel’s version.
It’s not perfect, but if you’re willing to give the TV show a chance, you might find it was all worthwhile in the end. The show gets a 7/10; quite a bit of wasted potential, but it had a lot of heart and soul put into it.