Shiny Shelf

The Feathered Serpent DVD

By Lance Parkin on 30 September 2011

A common criticism of television drama is that it’s very samey, that one hospital drama leads to another, that everything’s just a diet of reality shows and there are only rare glimmers of ambition at any level.

So, anyway, the Thames series ‘The Feathered Serpent’ that ran for two seasons in 1976 and 1977, is a drama set in an Aztec city where the peaceful Emperor Kukulkhan has abandoned the vicious old gods, and a vicious old priest, Nasca, is not happy.

The characters have names like Chimalma, Mahoutec and Heumac, and they all, men and women, wear tiny skirts, eyeshadow and gold adornment. There’s political intrigue, people are stabbed, tortured, poisoned and strangled. At stake is the issue of reason, and how religion is used for political ends. This is conducted as a battle of intrigue between old men with the younger generation in the crossfire, delivered in theatrical style.

Oh, and it’s a children’s show.

As a ‘Doctor Who’ fan, the hook for me was that the villain of the piece, Nasca is played by the actor who portrayed the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. He’s fantastic, dripping malevolence and fanaticism, but balancing it with clear cynicism and calculation. Does he believe in his dark god Teshcata? It’s a complicated question. It motivates his every move, but he is also constantly faking signs from the gods, he knows that the temple is full of magic tricks to impress the herd.

As a ‘Doctor Who’ fan, though, I’m struck by just how like the 1972 serial ‘The Curse of Peladon’ it all is. It’s got basically the same story, from the overarching plot (old priest plots against his leader to preserve superstition) to the details (there’s lots of pulling down of flaming torches to reveal secret tunnels to the temple, incriminating objects left around and brawling).

The Aztec costumes are, if anything, more alien and weird than anything ‘Doctor Who’ ever came up with (although like Peladon, it’s all very glam rock). I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn both drew from a common source, but for the moment, I do wonder if it’s simply a case of this show lifting it. They do a good job, and it’s a story that balances the big ideas and great declarative speeches with action and adventure.

Troughton stands out, but the rest of the cast play it like they’d play Shakespeare, and as it’s a series made entirely in the studio, on small sets, it comes across as very stagey. This is immensely to the series’ benefit, it means that the cast are taking something very seriously that they could have undermined very easily by giggling. Tony Steedman is immensely regal as the progressive old king, Diane Keen is very fetching as his daughter. The whole cast takes a series that might have looked and felt ridiculous and just makes it work.

Ultimately, the show feels a lot like ‘Curse of Peladon’, but it’s also clearly taking cues from ‘I, Claudius’, another historical saga where a subtle word out of place can prove as deadly as a dagger.

With ‘The Feathered Serpent’, you can come for the oddity, the sheer strangeness of seeing a giant see-through Patrick Troughton wearing a green blanket and ‘Mighty Boosh’ eyeshadow and demanding human sacrifice. But you stay for a very human story, with a smart, modern, humanistic message and written and played by a great cast.

‘The Feathered Serpent’ is the love child of ‘I, Claudius’ and ‘Doctor Who’, and is just as peculiar and rewarding as that sounds.

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

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