The Feathered Serpent. Series One – Episode Three

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Having made the decision to temporally abandon human sacrifice, Kukulkhan agrees to spend the night alone in the temple, where he will receive council from the Spirits of the Dead.  Kukulkhan certainly receives judgement, albeit of a very grim kind, but it was dispensed on the orders of the corporeal Nasca.

A pity that Tony Steedman exits the story so early, but the removal of Kukulkhan allows Chimalma to move into the centre of the narrative as she and Nasca find themselves on opposite sides.  Troughton continues to impress as he takes full advantage of John Kane’s well-crafted dialogue.  Here, Nasca explains to Chimalma and Heumac that although he has total faith in his god, this isn’t necessarily a blessing.  “It is a torment. To be so close to divinity, to share in his mysteries and yet to be a man amongst other men with their weaknesses and squalor. It is an agony of longing.”

Mahoutec agrees to attack Heumac’s army, camped outside the city walls.  Nasca wants all of Heumac’s men – numbering one thousand – sacrificed, which causes Mahoutec pause for thought.  But he agrees anyway.

Events once again take place at night.  Moody lighting, judicious use of sound effects and a subtle instrumental track all help to create a sense of unease.  The drama continues to bubble along nicely as Mahoutec and Heumac clash.  Mahoutec dislikes and distrusts Heumac’s people (calling them scum) and personally detests Heumac since they both wish to marry the same woman.  But does Mahoutec desire Chimalma personally, or does he simply want to sit on the throne?

Mahoutec and Heumac duel, although it’s over very quickly.  Heumac wins but spares Mahoutec’s life.  This infuriates Mahoutec – when it is known he lost but wasn’t killed he won’t be able to face his men.  He demands that as the vanquished he has the right to insist Heumac kills him, but the other man declines.  “You must find your own end.”

As I’ve said, Kukulkhan departs the story with something of a whimper rather than a bang and the duel between Mahoutec and Heumac is a disappointingly brief one.  But there’s still plenty to entertain here, not least when Chimalma, Nasca and the others discover Kukulkhan’s body.  This gives Troughton an opportunity to notch his intensity level up to eleven as Nasca declares that judgement has been carried out.

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The Feathered Serpent. Series One – Episode Two

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George Cormack’s film and television credits were relatively few in number, but quality certainly made up for quantity.  He was one of the few members of the guest cast in the Doctor Who story The Time Monster to emerge with any dignity, for example, and his turn here as the blind ex-priest Otolomi, is another strong performance.

Otolomi befriends Tozo and explains a little of his history to the boy.  “For more than half my life I was Quala’s priest. Then my people turned to Teshcata. They staked me out in the desert with my face turned to the sun and there they left me until the power of sight was burned forever from my eyes.”

The appearance of Heumac in the throne room causes a little bit of a stir.  His likeness, via a carving, had preceded him, but it wasn’t one that had impressed Chimalma.  In the flesh Heumac is rather personable, a far cry from the rather ugly carving.  He explains that this was done deliberately, and Chimalma (who last episode wasn’t exactly looking forward to her marriage) seems to perk up a little at the sight of him!

Nasca manipulates Mahoutec whilst continuing to clash with Kukulkhan. Nasca’s more than a little upset that he’s only been given three sacrifices rather than the ten he wanted.  The plot also begins to move as Otolomi and Tozo gain position of a map which shows that the new temple, built to honour Teshcata, has secret passages which were inserted on the orders of Nasca.  Otolomi believes that possession of the map will enable him to break Nasca’s power once and for all.

Taking place during the night, this episode drips with atmosphere as shadows, lighted torches and unsettling sound effects abound.  I also like the way that Nasca skulks around the palace at will, removing stones in the walls so that he can communicate with Kukulkhan.  Nasca, of course, denies this, insisting that it must have been a spirt that the Emperor heard.

Kukulkhan makes public his desire that Chimalma and Heumac should be married.  The people approve, which means that both Kukulkhan and Heumac are now in grave danger from Nasca.  And when Kukulkhan decides that there will be no sacrifices until after their marriage that only serves to infuriate the High Priest even more ….

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The Feathered Serpent. Series One – Episode One

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Broadcast on ITV during June and July 1976, it’s a little difficult to believe that The Feathered Serpent was a children’s series.  Throw in a little gratuitous nudity and it wouldn’t have looked too dissimilar to the later prime-time serial The Cleopatras.

Set in Ancient Mexico,  the early episodes of series one of The Feathered Serpent revolve around the power struggle between the Emperor Kukulkhan (Tony Steedman) and the High Priest Nasca (Patrick Troughton).  Kukulkhan is a wise and enlightened man who’s grown tired of conquest and bloodshed.  He knows that the more territories they conquer, the more difficult it will become to keep their subjugated peoples suppressed, which in turn will mean that more and more brutal methods of punishment and domination will have to be found.  This doesn’t concern Nasca – he’s a man who revels in death and destruction and was instrumental in ensuring that Kukulkhan’s people turned away from worshipping Quala, a god of peace, in favour of Teshcata, a god who demands human sacrifice.

It should go without saying, but Troughton is mesmerising as Nasca.  He can do eye-rolling villainy with the best of them, but he’s also capable of stillness and subtlety.  The moment, early on here, when he plaintively asks Teshcata why he no longer speaks to him is one such example. And his realisation that his god will only be satisfied with blood – and royal blood at that – is chilling.

This initial episode covers a lot of ground.  We meet Nasca and Kukulkhan and are quickly made aware that they have diametrically opposing views – basically offering a choice between darkness and light.  Kukulkhan’s daughter, Princess Chimalma (Diane Keen) also enters the frame.  If Troughton’s one reason for watching these two serials, then Keen is most certainly another.  Although Chimalma has a certain doe-eyed beauty, she’s also a woman of spirit.  Kukulkan is keen to marry her off to Prince Heumac (Brian Deacon) a member of a rival tribe who still worships the old, peaceful, god Quala.

Kukulkhan hopes that their union will not only help to bring peace between their two tribes but will also lead his people back to the worship of Quala.  This begs one question – since Kukulkhan, even though he’s just and fair, has total autocratic power, why did he allow Nasca to replace Quala with Teshcata?  Like Troughton and Keen, Tony Steedman offers an impressive performance, raising the studio roof with an powerful display of histrionics.

One person who’s far from happy with the news of Chimalma and Heumac’s intended nuptials is Mahoutec (Robert Gary). He’s the brave, if not particularly diplomatic, leader of Kukulkhan’s army. Mahoutec has always believed that he would marry Chimalma, so when Nasca gleefully tells him what Kukulkhan intends, it’s plain that sparks will fly.

Tozo (Richard Willis) is a young boy in the employ of Heumac. Outspoken and aggressive, it seems impossible for him to keep out of trouble. Tozo serves as the audience identification figure, being the one younger member of the cast.

Despite being studio-bound, it’s plain that a little more money than usual for a children’s series was thrown at The Feathered Serpent.  The sets are substantial and impressive, although the harsh studio lighting – no doubt intended to simulate bright sunshine – does tend to give some scenes a rather theatrical, unreal air.  Night-time sequences, when the lighting can be brought right down, are naturally much more atmospheric.

With lashings of make-up (and that’s just on the men) and some odd-looking costumes, on one level this is a series that looks faintly ridiculous.  But the quality of the story and the core cast ensures that by the end of episode one most viewers should be firmly hooked.

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