Updated: December 23 2020 09:43
If the new virus is nature's vengeance, will a blood sacrifice reset the earth's balance?
ON THEIR WAY to the settlement of Springton, Greg and Jenny meet a solitary woman who pleads with them for food. When Greg arrives they meet a hostile reception from tracker and woodsman Patrick, but are welcomed by Springton's leader Broome. Jenny has tracked down Carol in the woods, and the pair observe a pagan celebration presided over by Boome. His daughter Summer is keen to bond with Patrick, but he is immediately attracted to the feisty new visitor Carol. Members of the settlement's council return with worrying news of a virus spreading across Britain from the south-east. Carol says she knows nothing of this new threat. As the council discuss quarantine arrangements, Summer falls ill. Boone announces that, to appease nature and the gods a sacrifice will take place that evening in the woods. But as the illness continues to take a brutal toll at Springton, suspicions turn towards the newest arrivals in the community. Before they are able to leave, Greg and Jenny discover that the settlement's pagan ideals extend beyond the limits of animal sacrifice, and the pair realise that it is not only the new virus that they must fear...
IN THE ORIGINAL TV series, the themes of the resurgence of superstition and the retreat into religion in the face of The Death are explored in different ways in several episodes. What remains little explored on screen is the potential for older, pre-Christian religious observance to again come to the fore; and, in particular, forms of spiritual conviction based on the idea of the resilience of nature. In the previous series, The Foundation's charismatic leader Theo espoused a hokum ideology supposedly based on a belief in the power of the natural world, but in series five a community's commitment to a form of Wiccan spirituality takes a dark turn in the face of the threat from the new pandemic.
Christopher Hatherall's "New Blood" succeeds in combining the demands of a standalone story with the compressed overarching story arc of the four-episode run, delivering some inventive action sequences whilst introducing a number of well-drawn new characters; first amongst them the irascible, argumentative and deeply undiplomatic Patrick (superbly performed by Fintan McKeown).
The community of Springton is run by the agreeable and sociable Silas Broome (a winning turn by Richard Hope), whose essential sense of decency only unravels when the plague takes the life of his beloved daughter Summer (a captivating performance from Alex Clatworthy). While Maythorne is struck by the plague as the result of a criminal act of abduction (when Healy's infected group of brigands seize Abby and Carol); disease is visited upon Springton as a result of the instinctive humanity of Jenny and Greg, who happen upon (and then seek out) the bereft and starving Carol.
Carol could seek some sort of redemption for her criminal behaviour by isolating herself from others
While Springton opens its doors to all three visitors, Greg's and Jenny's charitable act is one that nearly costs them both their lives. Carol could, of course, seek some sort of redemption for her criminal behaviour by accepting the life of a hermit and isolating herself from others. But instead she shows no compunction in bringing disease and death to another community in the hope of saving herself.
The gruff Patrick Regan (an Irish-born former member of the travelling community, and a man with anger control issues) is an excellent character invention. His role as a single parent, and loving father to the young Jimmy, ensures that he avoids the risks of caricature. But Hatherall finds great dramatic conflict in the dynamic between the hostile Patrick and the indignant Greg: as these two alpha males clash, the pair even come to blows.
Hatherall's script is mindful not to damn the community's wiccan beliefs from the outset. The first of three woodland ceremonies that feature in the story is a "hand-fastening" (a kind of pair bonding that eschews the traditional religious entrapments). It serves as an illustration of the essential decency of the Springton community, and as a metaphor for hopeful expectation about the settlement's future.
As the first of Springton's residents fall ill, and the mood amongst its council members darkens, Broome sees urgent need for a blood sacrifice to appease the forces of nature and reset the spiritual balance. While, as would be expected, Jenny is repulsed by the sight of the worshippers drinking animal blood, Greg is equally dismissive of the spiritual mumbo-jumbo and determined to focus instead on practical measures to contain the plague. This brings the Whitecross pair into direct conflict with the leaders of Springton, who favour isolation and quarantine; withdrawing from the world to protect themselves (even though it is palpably too late for this, with the infection now rife amongst them).
With Broome reeling from the nightmare visited upon Springton, he continues to see Carol as a medical expert and an ally; and becomes convinced that Jenny and Greg are the carriers of the contagion. Distraught at the illness of his son, Patrick lowers his defences in an attempt to convince Carol to direct all her supposed 'expertise' into saving the community. He pays the price for this uncharacteristic openness as Carol, seemingly having lost all remaining moral moorings, stabs him before fleeing.
As the last of the three Wiccan ceremonies get underway, Greg and Jenny are condemned to die to provide the human sacrifice that Broome is now convinced the gods demand. Even though the survival of two of the show's leads is never in question, there are some genuinely harrowing scenes as Greg rails against his fate and Jenny pleads for mercy, urging Broome to consider what her death would mean for her son Paul.
The sound design throughout all four episodes of series five is extremely well judged, but the atmosphere of the aural setting comes into its own during these woodland gatherings, as a chorus of voices intones an evocative incantation; one that becomes darker as events themselves turn bleaker.
Carol proves capable of a final moral act as she intervenes at gunpoint to free Greg and Jenny
Although she is mired in culpability for so much suffering, Carol proves capable of a final moral act: she intervenes at gunpoint to free Greg and Jenny from certain death (repaying the debt for their initial kindness towards her when they first met). Their rescue proves a strong finale to a memorable and richly-textured episode, marked by strong characterisation and an intriguing new setting in the guise of Broome's wiccan enclave. As they leave Springton in turmoil, and Carol slips away, Greg and Jenny face the terrible recognition that The Death has returned and now threatens everything they have worked for up until now, including Whitecross itself.
Although none of them are aware of it, by the close of "New Blood", the roaming Abby and the retreating Jenny and Greg are all aware that post-plague England now faces ruin from a resurgence of a mutated variant of The Death. At the half-way point of series five, you could scarcely ask for higher stakes.
THIS IS A story about what fear does and it’s expertly handled, both in pacing and time period. The last time 1970s paganism sounded this unsettling was The Wicker Man.
Alasdair Stuart, SciFiBulletin
THEY RECREATE THEIR characters flawlessly. You could almost see the extraordinarily tight jeans which somehow Ian McCulloch, Carolyn Seymour and Lucy Fleming were poured into back in the seventies.
Michael Seely, We Are Cult
BARBARISM MASQUERADING AS religion from people who have lost and are losing again to the new "death" that is spreading like wildfire. Bleak, genuinely downbeat but a drama unlike any other.
Ed Watkinson, Planet Mondas
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"There's still great potential here, as the UK begins to emerge from the dark ages of The Death, for more stories set in this uniquely realised dystopia, should sufficient numbers of those who have yet to purchase copies of this extraordinary audio series belatedly recognise the error of their ways. If that doesn't happen, this will remain a stunning finale for what must be celebrated as a consistently compelling audio drama, 5/5"
The eight series of new Survivors audio adventures is available to buy (in CD and download formats) from Big Finish.
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Series nine reviews addedAdded: 13 July 2019
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