There was a time in the somewhat less sensitive 1970s that Anglos could slather on a coat of bronzer and happily gallivant around a soundstage playing at Aztecs and Toltecs, and no one minded a bit. Out of that time came the BBC drama The Feathered Serpent and though it amounts to little more than a glorified soap opera, there is quite a bit of enjoyment to be had with it.
There is tension brewing in the land of what we presume to be the Aztecs, though that name is not mentioned in the show. Emperor Kukulkhan (Tony Steedman) is uncomfortable with the god Teschata, and his demands for human sacrifice, and wants to return his people to the worship of their former and much gentler god Quala, a stand in for Quetzalcoatl. He even goes so far as to promise his daughter Chimalma (Diane Keen) in marriage to the ruler of the neighboring Toltecs, Prince Heumac (Brian Deacon), who still cling to the religion of Quala. Of course, Teschata's priest Nasca (Patrick Troughton of Dr. Who fame) is dead set against this course of action, as it would mean total loss of his power and esteem, and schemes mightily to prevent both the marriage and the change in religious regime.
Over the course of two series and twelve episodes, the two sides engage in intrigue and maneuvering to decide whether the Aztecs will worship a bloodthirsty god or a peaceful one. Arrayed with Quala are also Heumac's faithful servant Tozo (Richard Willis) and the blind and outcast priest Otolmi (George Cormack). Alongside Teschata are the mute, hulking under-priest Chadac (George Lane Cooper) and the nobleman Xipec (Granville Saxton). There are duels, resurrections from death, madness, poison and trials by ordeal. Each episode is about twenty five minutes long, and a huge amount of plot, characterization and action is packed into each one.
Overall, it's a good time, though there are some obvious problems. The video quality is not good, but it's comparable to the normal standard for British television productions of the time period. The sets and props are lavish, but quite obviously fabricated. On a couple of occasions supposedly solid stone walls are seen to wobble when touched. Costumes are generally in the same boat, except that a larger amount of care and pain was taken to them look good, if not authentic. But these flaws are quite forgivable, especially given the time of the production, and are very much outweighed by the positive aspects of the show. The cast is clearly having a good time, diving into their often melodramatic performances. This goes most of all for Patrick Troughton, who is delightful as the scheming, duplicitous and blood mad priest Nasca. He chews through the scenery and revels in the sheer wickedness of his character. The other actors do very well, and are even quite good at times, but The Feathered Serpent is really Troughton's show from start to finish.
The plotting is intricate, causing much material to be skimmed over or elided to conform to the show's short running time. A similar plotline produced today would take up a minimum of ten to fifteen hours of screen time per season, and here it's compressed down to less than three. But that's probably a feature as opposed to a bug here, as the mind doesn't have time to wander, or indeed to ponder too deeply the various niggling plot holes or logical flaws.
Below is a list of episodes with descriptions as provided on the discs. Please note that mild spoilers are included in the synopses.
Emperor Kukulkhan wants peace and the return of the god Quala. High Priest Nasca, however, wants human sacrifices for his vengeful god Teschata. Into this tense situation arrives the servant boy Tozo announcing the approach of his master, Prince Heumac, king of the Toltecs.
Tozo meets the blind priest, Otolmi, and learns that the palace is riddled with secret passages. Heumac impresses both the emperor and his daughter, Princess Chimalma, but Nasca feeds the jealousy of General Mahoutec, a rival for Chimalma's affections.
Nasca orders Kukulkhan to spend a night in the temple of Teschata with his ancestors. Exploring the secret passages in the temple, Tozo makes a grim discovery. And manipulated by Nasca's lies, Mahoutec challenges Heumac to a fight to the death.
Now empress, Chimalma intends to honor her father's wishes and marry Heumac. After Heumac finds a map fragment in the temple, Nasca captures Tozo and has him tortured. In a ritual ceremony, Nasca offers Kukulkhan's heart to Teschata.
The empress has been poisoned, and Heumac sits in prison. Nasca convinces Mahoutec that Heumac is a sorcerer and tricks him into attacking Heumac's army. When Chimalma recovers with help from Tozo, Nasca accuses her of madness.
Political intrigue overtakes the palace. Instructed by Otolmi, Chimalma feigns obedience to Nasca and devotion to Teschata. Meanwhile, Heumac awaits his fate at the Pyramid of the Sun. When an eclipses terrifies the people, Nasca calls for blood, and the knife falls.
It seems that the reign of evil is over. The empress welcomes the return of Quala and announces that she will marry Heumac. However, Heumac must prove himself worthy after regional governor Xipec challenges the match. Xipec also offers to dispose of Nasca's body.
Revived by the evil magic of the sorceress Keelag, Nasca lives again. He plots to bring down Empress Chimalma by unleashing a plague of madness on the city. Heumac and Tozo face their own peril locked in the Stone Cage, where they must pass three tests or die.
Keelag teaches Nasca how to control men's minds with magic. Heumac and Chimalma are ready to wed, but first the missing crowns of Chichen Itza must be found. In the ruins of Teschata's statue, Tozo uncovers a sacred mirror that contains vital clues to the search.
Nasca uses a magic lamp to hypnotize and deceive Chimalma and Heumac. Keelag starts poisoning the city's wells, and a violent madness begins to spread. Tozo is kidnapped and tortured by Xipec, who demands to know the whereabouts of the sacred mirror.
Heumac travels to Xipec's palace to rescue Tozo. After Chimalma is attacked and almost killed by someone she trusts, she is further duped by Nasca into believing she must atone for the madness in the city with her own death.
The stage is set for the final confrontations between good, evil, and the gods. Heumac and Xipec engage in ritual battle, Tozo unlocks the secret of the mirror, and Nasca attempts the ultimate deception. Only blind Otolmi sees the truth.
The Feathered Serpent is a simple pleasure, not to be meditated upon too deeply, but it is a pleasure nonetheless. Recommended.
The image is presented in 1.33:1 full screen, and honestly doesn't look that great. The occasional tracking line is visible, and the picture is often a tad muddy, among other problems. But this fits right in to the standard video quality of television offerings of the day, and is nothing much to complain about.
The audio is in Dolby digital 2 channel, and does the job but isn't spectacular. It's occasionally a little tinny, but the dialogue is always clear. English subtitles are included, but no alternate language track.
The only extras included are various Acorn trailers, and a short, text only rundown of Aztec and Toltec history, and how Feathered Serpent relates, or doesn't, to the reality.
The Feathered Serpent has all the flaws and bright spots of a British television melodrama of the 1970s. As such, it's a bit cheesy at times, and overwrought, with ridiculous fight scenes and flimsy sets. But it also provides loads of lightweight fun, with actual, nuanced character developments and intriguing plots. There are protagonists we can honestly admire, and villains who we can relish despising. All in all, a good six hours of fun.