Forgotten TV: The Feathered Serpent

By the description of it, The Feathered Serpent sounds like it should be a total ridiculous disaster. This 1976 British kids show is a pseudo-political thriller that takes place during the Aztec Empire. With a tone that seems inspired by I, Claudius, and predicting Game Of Thrones, it involves a critique of religious fanaticism and its use in political control. Oh, and there is plenty of at least implied gruesomeness and a heavy homoerotic undertone. Did I mention it’s meant for kids.

Total disaster? Actually, no, not at all.

At the center of the story, and the cast, is former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton, whose rough intensity oozes calculating evil. It’s a deliciously villainous performance and universes away from his goofy Time Lord, but he shares the screen well with a number of great players in a sprawling and complicated — for a kid’s show — drama.

The series opens with the impending marriage of the Emperor’s daughter Chimalma (Diane Keen) and Toltec prince Heumac (Brian Deacon), a move that will unite the kingdoms. Unfortunately, this plan doesn’t sit well with Chimalma’s previous betrothed, Mahoutek, General of the Jaguar Guards (Robert Gray), who simmers while trying his best to hold in the boil.

The real fuse in this situation is Nasca (Troughton), the new high priest for the new god, who demands human sacrifice as part of the worship, a practice that Emperor Kukhulkhan (Tony Steedman) opposes and attempts to resist. Nasca connives to stop the marriage and take control of the empire through a series of behind-the-scenes manipulations and far-reaching pre-planning.

But this scenario didn’t expect the plucky, girlish slave boy Tozo (Richard Willis) nor the blind, addled, determine ex-head priest Otolmi (George Cormack) to show bravery and guile in confronting the conspiracy.

This goes on for two seasons. Well, the second season is more a sequel than a continuation, but if it seems at first it might be more of the same, that turns out wrong, and it becomes even more gruesome and suggestive, and the situation more dire.

To make matters more curious, it seems they actually put a respectable amount of money into this show, or at least knew how to make the most of a modest amounts. The multiple sets are thorough, the acting superb, the costuming intricate though admittedly goofy (a good bit of the homoeroticism comes into play with the costuming), and the sense of drama heightened given the audience its serving.

And its populist tone is about as progressive as you can get at the time, given the subject matter. Servant Tozo proves to be the most indispensable hero of the piece, and Chimalma, despite her status as princess and betrothed to a warrior, commands authority and though might be presented as a victim in some parts, is never a withering one.

What’s most unexpected, though, is that The Feathered Serpent, more than many shows I’ve seen from the era, has the ability to draw you into its action, to create tension with its drama, and to get you thinking about it on a level beyond the one being presented. It’s technically a mish-mash of references to Aztec culture, with spare allegiance to reality, but it manages to make none of that matter. It plays well with the toys its been given.

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