The Feathered Serpent
by Jef Burnham
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On May 17, 2011, Acorn Media will release The Feathered Serpent on DVD, marking the first time the series has been made available to audiences in the United States. Patrick Troughton (Doctor Who) stars in this sensational costume drama that originally aired in two, six-part series on the UK’s ITV in 1976 and 1978. In the tradition of the Biblical epics of Cecil B. DeMille— albeit on a much smaller scale— elaborate sets and opulent costumes provide the visual foundation for this tightly-written political thriller set in Aztec Mexico.
When the story begins, murder and intrigue strike the court of Emperor Kukulkhan (Tony Steedman) as he attempts to secure the future of his tribe. By wedding his daughter Chimalma (Diane Keen) to Prince Heumac of the rival Toltecs, Kukulkhan hopes to bring his people back to the worship of the peaceful god, Quala (also known as “The Feathered Serpent”), to whom the Toltecs are devoted. But his plans are hindered by the political maneuverings of high priest Nasca (Troughton)— servant to the bloodthirsty god, Teshcata.
Troughton is phenomenal as Nasca. Having seen his every (existing) episode of Doctor Who, it’s wonderful to see him in such a weighty villain role as this. Granted, he played the villain as well as the Doctor in Doctor Who’s “The Enemy of the World,” but that role was far less substantial and far less sinister than Nasca. As the high priest of a god that demands constant wholesale human sacrifice, Nasca is deliciously evil. He’s so evil in fact that his ceremonial headdress features a skull faceplate in addition to an ornamental skull set atop his head! What sets the character apart from other characters of his ilk is that Nasca does not seek to sway the beliefs of the tribe simply for his own personal gain. Nay, everything he does is in the name and interest of his god, Teshcata. And it is this fanatical devotion to Teshcata that makes Nasca so terrifying.
Given that the first series was released two years before the second, it is no surprise that the first series wraps up nicely at its conclusion. After all, they likely had not planned on going any further when the first series was completed. Thus, I doubted whether or not a subsequent six episodes could possibly succeed as the first six had. But series writer John Kane picks up the tale where he’d left off marvelously, teasing us along with a highly tense, slow-building storyline that demands to be viewed in as few sittings as possible. All the primary actors reprise their roles in the second series, and, as an added bonus, the costumes are even more lavish than before.
With all the hidden passageways, poison, sorcery, and ancient Aztec curses and ordeals you could hope for from a story such as this, The Feathered Serpent makes for immensely addictive viewing. If the story hooks you, you’ll likely plow through the series’ 300-minute running time in a single weekend at home. However, some viewers, unaccustomed to the British studio television programming of this era, may be put off by the apparent cheapness of the sets combined with the video aesthetic. But I personally find this to account for much of The Feathered Serpent’s charm. Moreover, the title sequence establishes the desired foreboding atmosphere at the outset of each episode, laying an ominously frantic soundtrack over images of flames, flying skulls, and a rapidly rising sun. And considering the source material for this set is indeed videotape aged 33 and 35 years, the picture quality is consistently excellent throughout with only occasional slight fluctuations.
Bonus materials are light in this two-disc set, limited to a historical background on Mesoamerican civilizations.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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