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The Feathered Serpent 2.5 and 2.6

The series concludes with its most blood-soaked installments yet. All three villains meet suitably grisly ends, two of the supporting cast get killed, and the makeup department gets to go overboard with blood and bruises because just about everybody else gets maimed. And this was a kids’ show. Man alive. I’ll defend Land of the Lost‘s crown as the greatest and most entertaining mindfreak for children on American television, and leagues superior to anything else we could watch in the seventies, but even at its most physically frightening – when characters are actually wounded (probably best seen in “The Search”) – it was never anywhere as gruesome or graphic as this.

But this wouldn’t have worked without the terrific acting and great performances throughout. Patrick Troughton’s at the top of his game as the villain, of course, especially when he loses his mind completely and convinces himself that he is no longer human, and his god “made flesh,” to use the cliche. I assured our son that when we see him next (in a little less than a month), he’ll be a hero again. But Brian Deacon and Granville Saxton were also really excellent in their roles, and this great script has so many twists and turns to keep everybody busy and while the outcome is never really in doubt, I spent a lot of time wondering exactly how the good guys were going to win.

That said, I think when I dust this off down the line for another screening, our kid won’t be joining me. I could see that he was riveted and paying attention while biting his lip, but when I asked whether there was anything about this that he liked, he replied “I liked it when Nasca didn’t survive!”

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The Feathered Serpent 2.3 and 2.4

Things get worse, and worse, and worse. The coronation crowns of Chichen Itza are lost, the villains have captured Tozo, they’ve poisoned one of the city’s wells with a drug that causes madness, and the evil Nasca has enslaved the good, blind priest.

Our son retreated to the other sofa and curled his lip in a combination of frustration and fear. After several minutes, we asked “Are you afraid something bad is going to happen?”

And he summed up The Feathered Serpent by growling “Something bad always happens!”

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The Feathered Serpent 2.1 and 2.2

I confess that our son was not overly thrilled about the idea of returning to old Mexico for six more episodes of backstabbing, treachery, and ancient gods. He barely tolerated the first serial, mainly because the villain had the upper hand the entire time, and he doesn’t like villains. He grudgingly admitted that he liked the secret passages in the pyramids, but that was it.

Happily, despite the cliffhanger to part one leaving him bellowing “Oh, come on!” in frustration, he happily agreed that he enjoyed tonight’s installments much more than he was expecting. The second Feathered Serpent serial begins just minutes after the first one concluded. It was taped and shown almost two years later, in the spring of 1978, apparently because it took months to plan around all the very busy actors, including Patrick Troughton, Diane Keen, George Cormack, Richard Willis, and Brian Deacon, having gaps in their schedules at the same time.

That said, Troughton cruised through episode one in just about the easiest job of his career: playing a corpse. He’s not quite dead, it turns out, and the story’s two new villains, an absolutely hideous witch played with gusto by Sheila Burrell and a slaver played by an actor with the remarkably posh name of Granville Saxton, magically revive the evil priest. His resurrection didn’t surprise any adults watching, either in 1978 or today, but man alive, did it aggravate the kid.

With Nasca recovering – and after a fabulous scene where the weakened priest quietly recounts the horrors of the afterlife, where his god, furious with his failure, ripped his soul from his body with the claws of a jaguar – the heroes get on with their story. The Toltec Prince Huemac hopes to marry Empress Chimalma, but must survive a night in a trap-filled pyramid first. The traps are extremely clever and we all really enjoyed working the way out along with Huemac. Best of all, there’s a sequence that looked slipshod, and some behind-the-scenes visual effects trickery got too visible for the camera. Then it turns out that the audience was meant to see that. It was part of the narrative, and not behind-the-scenes at all. Neat trick!

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The Feathered Serpent – 1.5 and 1.6

Recently, the subject of professional complainer-about-television Mary Whitehouse came up on Twitter, and I started thinking about how everybody in Britain knew who Whitehouse was, while her closest American counterpart, Peggy Charren, is largely unknown. That’s despite Charren’s far greater success in keeping American children’s television in the seventies so tame and unthreatening, while British kids were having afternoons filled with psychological horror and gore. Mary Whitehouse was so notorious for her complaints about everything from kids’ programming to sitcoms to paranormal dramas that her thoughts on any given program would get column inches in all the newspapers, but darned if she ever effected any real change or censorship.

One mammoth difference between children’s TV in our two countries: the villains. Sure, American TV for kids in the seventies was full of memorable villains. They were either played for laughs (just check out all the Krofft shows in the side menu) or they were so ineffective that they were unthreatening. Compare anybody from Saturday morning teevee’s rogues’ gallery to Iain Cuthbertson in Children of the Stones, or to Patrick Troughton in The Feathered Serpent. Troughton’s character, Nasca, would have Witchiepoo, Dr. Shrinker, the Oozes, every last one of the villains in The Ghost Busters and all thirteen members of the Legion of Doom lined up for sacrifice.

And there would be blood. Nasca engineers a shocking body count among the speaking parts in this serial. Offscreen, the army launches a surprise attack and massacres half of the Toltec force, but I’m still amazed by the number of named characters who don’t make it out of this story alive. This is brutal, wonderful stuff.

But longtime readers may recall that our son has never liked villains very much. Since Nasca spends all six episodes in charge of everything, quickly adapting his plans to counter any move the heroes make and manipulating every situation to his ends, he dominates the story in the same way that Tony Soprano or Avon Barksdale dominated their programs a quarter-century later. And our son hated him. Every time the good guys get close to turning the tables, Nasca has a new surprise.

We had to have a long talk after the show about the best way to communicate unhappiness with stories. We asked him to please ask us to pause the show so we can talk about it rather than letting his discomfort drive him to distraction. After all, the good guys would surely win eventually… kid just needed some reassuring.

On the other hand, until about fifteen minutes into episode six, even I wasn’t convinced the good guys were going to win.

That’s all for now for The Feathered Serpent. We’ll watch series two in a couple of months – I wouldn’t miss it for the world – but our poor kid needs a break from the horrors of ancient Mexico! Stay tuned for more!

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The Feathered Serpent – 1.3 and 1.4

I’m really enjoying this. It’s moving incredibly quickly. Part three of The Feathered Serpent begins with the assassination of the emperor. His body isn’t discovered until the end of the episode, leaving Princess Chimalma the new empress, but Nasca’s not going to let her reign be a very long one.

Nasca’s a fascinating villain because his motives are so clear and so horrifying. He’s afraid of the people abandoning his religion for something that should have been old and forgotten, and so, with the righteous fury of a religious maniac, he declares doubt in his god to be the greatest sin of all and won’t let anything get in his way of murdering the nonbelievers and stopping the union of the tribes.

Meanwhile, there’s torture, secret potions, hidden passages, and a fascinating and very theatrical sword fight in part three. It’s just a shade over our son’s head, to be honest, and he’s not entirely sure what’s so funny when we chuckle at Nasca’s evil and his manipulations, but I’m having an absolute ball with this.

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The Feathered Serpent – 1.1 and 1.2

I don’t know that I’d ever heard of The Feathered Serpent before last year. I mean, I must have, but it didn’t sink in. But last year, as I was absorbing the completely wonderful first volume of Scarred For Life, which focuses on the 1970s, I hit the small chapter about this program, read a little bit of the rave review, and figured we needed to watch it. I figured correctly.

The Feathered Serpent is a pair of six-part serials written by John Kane and made by Thames Television. It was shown on Monday afternoons in London, and was aimed at older kids, though there’s a lot here for all ages. The first serial aired in the summer of 1976 and it introduced us to one of Patrick Troughton’s most deliciously fun characters: a manipulative, scheming, and deeply evil priest called Nasca. The story is set in Mexico, long before any Spanish warships showed up on the horizon, and pits the bloodthirsty Nasca against the powerful Emperor Kukulkhan, played by Tony Steedman.

The people of this great city love Kukulkhan, and seem to be willing to abandon Nasca’s blood-demanding god Teschcata in favor of an older, kinder god, the feathered serpent Quala. To this end, Kukulkhan plans for his daughter, played by Diane Keen, to marry a Toltec prince, in part because the Toltecs all worship the peaceful feathered serpent. Nasca’s not having any of that. He’s been planning for months as our story opens, and has ensured that the builder of the new palace has honeycombed it with secret passages so that he can spy on his enemies. Now all he needs to do is turn the emperor’s trusted general against the boss. Meanwhile, a Toltec messenger boy meets an old, blind, disgraced priest played by George Cormack. This priest has been having some freaky dreams of prophecy and doom, and hopes that the young messenger can save his prince from Nasca.

Well, I thought this was just grand fun. There are bits where the dialogue gets a little too formal-slash-Shakespearean for me to believe in it completely, but this is just a great scenario for some good character actors to really sink their teeth into. It’s palace intrigue with bare feet and huge headdresses, with some fabulous sets which sparked our son’s principal question: how do the secret passages in this palace work when this all takes place so long ago? We enjoyed pointing out that just because it’s set seven hundred or so years ago, that doesn’t mean that the Toltecs or the Aztecs were technologically inept. We’ve learned a lot about the pyramids and tombs and neat architectural tricks from many old civilizations around the world.

(I’ve just reminded myself that I obviously need to remind him of the tomb at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sure, that place may be ridiculous, but he didn’t stop to ask how anybody built it!)

We also talked about how Nasca is able to manipulate people by identifying their weaknesses. We’ve been discussing how people who get angry very easily can be talked into doing the wrong thing, and here comes Mahoutec, the emperor’s general, who is hot-tempered and easily offended and a total sucker for Nasca’s scheming, to prove our point. We’ll see what happens next in a couple of nights.

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