The Feathered Serpent was a two-season British TV show that originally aired in 1976. It’s a political intrigue story set in Aztec Mexico and starring the brilliant Patrick Troughton as Nasca, the evil high priest of a new, bloody religion. In contrast, the Aztec emperor favors peace, an alliance with a rich and cultured tribe, and an end to human sacrifice. The Aztec Empire is caught between the modern, enlightened world, and a dark world of blood. The court descends into intrigue as the various characters grapple for power.
You know what’s crazy? It’s billed as a childrens’ program! If this is the kind of stuff they made for kids, I’d love to see what kind of amazing stuff they made for adults. Each episode is only 25 minutes long, but more stuff happens in the first four episodes than in entire SEASONS of recent adults’ shows I’ve watched. Granted, you have to get past painted sets and British actors made up to look like Aztecs, but the quality of the writing and acting makes that easy.
My favorite thing about the show is how intelligent everyone is. I have never seen a show with so many reasonable, savvy people in it, and the plot never hinges on somebody being stupid. The emperor knows Nasca is powerful and may have good ideas, but he also knows Nasca’s goal is the new religion’s domination. If Nasca makes a suggestion, the king considers it carefully and responds with something calculated to play to his own interests and forestall Nasca’s plan. When one side moves, the other side can put two and two together and respond with its own machinations, and it’s a steady, clever back and forth. I finally understand the old comparison between politics and chess.
A show like this needs good characters to do the machinating. While some shows might have generic trope-inhabitors instead of characters –the high priest, the competing princes, the beautiful princess — these people are differentiated and interesting. The evil high priest? Troughton invests him with true intelligence combined with bloody religious fervor. That’s a scary combination. The princes? They actually kind of look the same, but I never get them confused because their demeanors are so different. The beautiful princess? She’s kind of a badass too, and she doesn’t need to be a “warrior princess” or a rebel to do it. She’s smart, mature, outspoken, and puts the interests of the kingdom first. There’s an annoying kid who always wants people to take him along — but actually no, he’s not annoying, he’s quick of foot, resourceful, and invaluable once he IS taken along. Oh, and the show’s not afraid to kill a character or two, whereas any other show might narrowly avoid it a dozen times and end up straining one’s belief in luck.
The Feathered Serpent comes in two seasons of six episodes each (all in one set in the DVD release). I won’t talk much about season two to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that it adds interesting new characters and continues the story in a new way, and also contains the BEST DEATHTRAP EVER. The Feathered Serpent isn’t historically accurate to the fine details, but it is inspired by some real issues in Aztec history. (I see Nasca as a reading of Tlacaelel, the royal adviser credited with pushing the Aztec civilization to record numbers of human sacrifices). At any rate, with post-Doctor Who Patrick Troughton, ancient history, and actual interesting politics for once, this show made my little nerd heart happy.
DVDs are available on Amazon. I got them on eBay as a gift for my brother, so there are some used copies floating around too.
Bonus fun fact: Aside from Patrick Troughton, The Feathered Serpent features another Doctor Who alumnus, George Cormack, here playing Otolmi, who played Dalios in “The Time Monster” and K’anpo in “Planet of the Spiders.”
ETA: Also Richard Willis, here playing Tozo, who played Varsh in the Fourth Doctor episode “Full Circle”!