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Feathered Serpent, The (1976-78)

Courtesy of FremantleThames

Main image of Feathered Serpent, The (1976-78)
Thames Television for ITV, tx. 21/6/1976-8/5/1978
2 series of 6 x 30 min episodes, colour
ProducerVic Hughes
WriterJohn Kane
MusicDavid Fanshawe

Cast: Patrick Troughton (Nasca); Diane Keen (Empress Chimalma); Brian Deacon (Prince Heumac); Richard Willis (Tozo); Robert Gary (Mahoutec); George Lane Cooper (Chadac); George Cormack (Otolmi)

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Ancient Mexico. Emperor Kukulkhan's people have begun to worship Teshcata, god of blood and sacrifice. The Emperor, however, still follows Quala, the Feathered Serpent, and plans to resurrect Quala's influence. But he finds a formidable opponent in Teshcata's priest, Nasca.

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A children's drama like no other before or since, The Feathered Serpent describes an Aztec-like civilisation in the throes of change from one faith to another, whose high priest, Nasca, will resort to murder and deceit to ensure complete submission to his god. But this unusual scenario is by no means all that sets this drama apart from modern children's television. For one thing, there's the violence. Blood is everywhere, with hearts cut out, children whipped and tortured and men stabbed through the back. There's a witch's dummy with a skull for a face and talk of men buried alive. All of which makes the series a kind of horror for children, something unthinkable in today's more anxious climate.

Historical drama now, especially that geared towards teenagers, 'modernises' the language and attitudes of the invariably youthful characters so that they are closer in spirit to that of the contemporary audience. By contrast, The Feathered Serpent adheres to the conventions of its time, with its Shakespearean dialogue, 'filmed theatre' camera style, and an unusual concentration on the adult world, with the boy Tozo a somewhat token identification figure for young viewers. And though it is an object of popular culture itself - it was made for ITV's late afternoon children's slot - it differs from its modern equivalents (Xena: Warrior Princess, US, 1995-2001; the historical episodes of the new Doctor Who, BBC, 2003-) in that it never references popular culture. Indeed, its seriousness and attention to period detail owe more to the educational remit of children's programming under Lord Reith's BBC.

It also credits its young audience with intelligence. Indeed, it would be hard to find an adult drama that so carefully maps the shifting of power between the pillars of state: government, priesthood and army, represented in turn by the Emperor Kukulkhan, his priest Nasca and general Mahoutec. And it would be virtually impossible now to explore Nasca's religious fanaticism with such acute understanding, this being a man who feeds his ailing faith by promoting violence against another, uses suicide assassins and eventually, in desperation, invokes himself as god.

The first series is a tale of court intrigue and political manoeuvring while the second tips into the supernatural, while the drama becomes more symbolic than character-driven. But both are satisfyingly complex, as thematically rich as they are exciting.

Michael Bartlett

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Video Clips
1. Communing with the dead (2:26)
2. Loss of faith in Teschcata (2:49)
3. The secret passages (2.16)
4. Heumac fights Mahoutec (2:12)
Complete episode (25.34)
Troughton, Patrick (1920-1987)
Children's Fantasy and SF
Children's TV Drama