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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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 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 Four

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Once more Nasca attempts to manipulate Mahoutec.  As expected, Troughton gives a mesmeric performance in this early scene – he’s very still, not offering any excessive movements, with his rich, deep voice pitched especially low.  Nasca might be a dangerous fanatic but he’s wise enough to know that at this time he needs to appear to be the voice of reason.

Mahoutec might have been presented up until now as a narrow-minded and jealous man but, unlike Nasca, he didn’t seek the Emperor’s death in order to further his own ambitions.  Nasca and Mahoutec are presented as uneasy allies, with Mahoutec still in ignorance about the true course of events – believing Nasca’s story that the Emperor was killed by a vengeful spirit.

There’s further opportunity for Troughton to show Nasca’s evil side as he interrogates the unfortunate Tozo.  Tozo is unwilling to speak, so Nasca’s shadow, the mute Chadac (George Lane Cooper) steps up to apply some torture.  As might be expected, Chadac’s ministrations (a series of needles) isn’t presented in an explicit manner, but the fact that it’s there at all in a children’s series (and that the child identification figure is the one to suffer) is interesting.  Richard Willis is able to show Tozo’s pain and suffering which, along with Troughton’s silky-voiced villainy, gives the moment a certain impact.

That Chimalma is of royal blood is made clear after she autocratically orders Heumac to search the temple for hidden passages.  If they can find them, then it’ll prove that her father was murdered by an assassin, not the spirits of the dead.  It all seems rather convenient that he’s able to do so with great ease (also finding the paralyzed Tozo along the way) but even with six episodes to play with you have to expect a few plot contrivances.

But this episode really belongs to Troughton.  Nasca has another key scene where, dressed in a ceremonial mask and with an oppressive chanting soundtrack, he utters the following at Kukulkhan’s funeral.  “Before the coming of Teshcata, the plains of death were a desolate place. There was no shade and the tears of the dead burnt the soil. But Teshcata came and said let the sun weep tears of blood and blood fell upon the plains of death and the desert became a paradise.  And Teshcata said let all those who have blood shedded for me and those who have none, let them give me their hearts that I may look upon the love therein.”

Lurid stuff, especially after Nasca rips out Kukulkhan’s heart (which thankfully happens off-screen).  With Kukulkhan’s death, Nasca is a step closer to absolute power but there’s still the problem of Chimalma.  So she must die as well ….

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The Feathered Serpent. Series One – Episode Five

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The episode four cliffhanger was a good one.  We see Chimalma poisoned with a dart blown by the hidden Chadac at exactly the same time that Nasca and Mahoutec enter the room.  With the senseless Chimalma falling into Heumac’s arms, Nasca is quick to accuse him – although Heumac attempts to convince Mahoutec that if he dies then the chance to save Chimalma will be lost forever.

Heumac tells Mahoutec that Nasca is his enemy, not him.  Troughton starts to ramp up the intensity once more as Nasca begins to see his position come under threat.  At present, Mahoutec doesn’t believe Heumac’s claims of secret passages in the temples nor that Nasca murdered the Emperor, but maybe, at the very least, a seed of doubt has been sown.

Following the attack on Chimalma, Mahoutec is finally convinced that an attack on Heumac’s army is justifiable.  Unsurprisingly for a studio-bound production it’s a case of tell, can’t show.

Like Tozo in the last episode, Chimalma is totally immobile and unable to speak, although she remains conscious and aware of her surroundings.  Diane Keen has an easy time of it in the early part of the episode, having to do little else but lie down, but after Tozo finds the antidote, Chimalma is able to renter the narrative in a dramatic fashion.

Before that, there’s more examples of Nasca’s eloquent oratory as he urges Teshcata to “play the music of destruction for us now. Play it loud so it reaches the ears of our enemies. Let them hear the sound that destroyed the god they worship. Let the weapons fall from their hands and let them sway to the music and let their partners in the dance be death and despair.”  During this scene there’s an overlay of flickering flames on Troughton as the camera slowly zooms in on him.  This, together with an ominous drumbeat, helps to create a very effective sense of menace.

The return of Chimalma temporarily puts a dampener on Nasca’s dreams of conquest.  Diane Keen shows Chimalma’s core of steel as she orders that Nasca and Chadac be arrested and Mahoutec banished.  Unfortunately her guards don’t respond (watch the flicker of amusement that plays around Troughton’s face as Nasca realises that he still holds the upper hand).  Has Nasca’s influence spread so far that it now infects the palace guard?  Given that Chimalma rules by right of succession it does seem strange that she appears so powerless.  There’s a bevy of important nobles milling about, but as they’re unspeaking extras it’s probably best not to expect a great deal of help from them (they can only manage some rhubarbing).

With Chimalma accused of being mad, she’s taken to spend the night in the Chamber of Screams ….

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The Feathered Serpent. Series One – Episode Six

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The Temple of Screams is populated by some rubbery-looking bats.  Also present is Otolmi, absent from the last few episodes, who is able to rescue Chimalma.  He manages to convince the Princess that when she emerges from the temple in the morning she should declare she was mistaken about Nasca.  This will give them a little breathing space to organise a plan to remove him permanently.

Mahoutec finally learns the truth about Nasca, but Nasca and Chadac ensure that he doesn’t live long enough to tell anyone.  Once again there’s an ominous sound of drumbeats on the soundtrack as Mahoutec fights and dies (in a rather bloody manner, it has to be said).  Nasca seems delighted with the outcome, clasping Chadac’s shoulder (a bit of business added by Troughton maybe?)

We finally discover what the Feathered Serpent is.  He’s the old, discredited god and Heumac will take his place and wear his robes as he’s taken to the Pyramid of the Sun for sacrifice.  Nasca matter-of-factly tells Heumac that he intends to rip out his heart and later we see Nasca planning to arrange the sacrifice to coincide at the precise moment of an eclipse.  It’s an interesting moment – Nasca might believe totally in his god but this shows that he’s not averse to using natural events in order to manipulate the populace.

The Pyramid of the Sun is seen in all its glory only briefly, but it’s a very effective use of CSO.  Heumac steps up to the mark to deal with Nasca, although the mere fact of Nasca’s death doesn’t stop him from returning for series two …..

It’s a pity about the dozen or so overacting extras (who are called upon to represent the thousands watching the attempted sacrifice).  Their allegiance switches from Nasca to Chimalma rather too quickly for my tastes.

If the conclusion of the story feels a little rushed, then The Feathered Serpent is still very effective, thanks in no small part to Patrick Troughton’s dominant performance as Nasca.  By the conclusion of the story it appears that good has triumphed over evil but the sequel series, broadcast in 1978, will show that the evil has yet to be defeated.  Even after his death, Nasca continues to threaten the rule of Chimalma and Heumac.

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