Australian Survivor might be reheating last year’s theme, but this year’s crop of Champions and Contenders are keeping it fresh as we kicked off the season with a promising focus on gameplay and social politicking right out of the gate. More than last year, there is a real sense of hunger and determination to play hard on both sides of the theme’s divide. Tonight, it showed in the challenges and in the fledgling strategy on the beach, and I hope it only grows from here.
The Contenders are hungry to win back the crown, and the tribe as a whole give an impression of a more varied and competitive edge. From the beginning, John Eastoe and Matt Farrelly helped set the tone for a more physically capable Contenders tribe as they handily bested Champions Simon Black and bonafide Survivor vet Luke Toki in the opening challenge. We might not have seen much of the Contenders tonight, in large part due to their colossal comeback victory in the Immunity Challenge, but there’s still ample time to get to know them, particularly if they continue to rock the challengers to prolong their time in the game.
Rather, tonight’s premiere was a highlight of the happenings at the Champions camp, and the burgeoning seeds of gameplay that transformed what could have been an easy majority vote into a far more complicated and fascinating demonstration of self-preservation and self-interest right from the get-go. And now that they’ve shed their first Tribal Council jitters, I’m optimistic that these seeds of strategy planted tonight could sprout into a dynamic game from a crowd of competitive personalities.
Let’s be honest – a good portion of the Survivor superfan community (myself included) was not thrilled at the prospect of yet another Champions tribe stacked with sporting personalities. But to Australian Survivor’s credit, it’s a pretty diverse collection. Of course, there’s the Andrew Ettingshausen type, seemingly destined to be maligned for a commitment to strength and loyalty. But there’s also an independent competitive drive fueling the likes of Steven Bradbury and Nova Peris that suggests that such a mantra might be useful in the early days, but only so long as it’s self-serving.
Fresh off their reward victory, claiming a healthy batch of starting supplies and the all-essential flint, the Champions had it made on Day 1. It could have easily settled into a kumbaya spirit of total camaraderie, but thankfully, not every Champion was willing to sit idly by. After making a name for himself by strategically hanging back and seizing the one-in-a-million opportunity that fell down in front of him, speed skater Steven Bradbury launched into Survivor adapting to the necessary strategic game. On Day 1, he was already assembling a majority – and importantly, much like his Olympic medal-winning tactic, he was not putting himself out in front.
In Survivor, like attracts like. In the early days, players scramble for any tether to connect them to the strangers on their beach, and any similarity makes those bonds easier to forge. Gender, age, race, background, heck even general attractiveness in the case of many a ‘cool kids table’ alliance over the years – all of these can, for better or worse, become a stencil on which to draw an initial relationship. When a tribe is stuffed full of sportspeople, that makes for a very natural commonality. And when that commonality conveniently makes up a 7-strong majority on a 12-strong tribe, it’s almost a no brainer.
Steven’s plan to assemble what would become known as the “Sporty Seven” was hardly ground-breaking, but his approach showed an awareness that suggests a keener mind than a so-called alliance of jocks might suggest. Steven approached ET, Simon, Ross Clarke-Jones and Susie Maloney directly, but he relied on these initial contacts to bring in the remainders of Abbey Holmes and Nova. Thus he was able to instigate the alliance (or “The Team”, if Ross were to have his way) without being seen as the one leading it, keeping a defacto leader in ET out in front. It’s a simple meatshield strategy, but it’s a valuable one in Survivor, and Steven followed it up by leaning into a beta role within the comfy cushion of numbers.
When Tribal loomed, he let others call the shots on who the Seven would target and then rolled with the plan. Even as plans shifted over the afternoon, Steven remained impartial to the decision-making, parroting the party lines of keeping the tribe strong and making sure the Seven remained in control. It may have been his alliance in its forging, but others would cop the heat – and it seems that the figurehead leader ET or the most vocal contributor to the vote in Nova will be likely to be seen as the ones in charge to those looking in.
That said, Day 1 alliances are hit-and-miss. When you build an alliance on a cursory and incidental commonality, you fail to take into account the nuances of personality that only become apparent with time. The Sporty Seven might be able to control the Champions tribe in the short term, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them fracture sooner rather than later. Steven and Nova, for instance, are coming in hot and wanting to manipulate the game in their personal favour. Will that continue to gel with the more straightforward approach of loyalty and mateship that someone like ET might value? Will Ross’ devilish personality continue to mix with the seemingly mild-mannered Susie? Having seen so little of them at this stage, it’s hard to make the call, but precedent suggests that wrangling a large alliance forged only on convenience will be a difficult task to manage.
On the other hand, an alliance based on personal connections can be far stronger. Luke was a fascinating player in his first season – surprisingly effective as he utilised his laconic and effortless charm to manoeuvre his way to 7th place. As the only Champion with Survivor experience, his point made tonight about forging relationships on which to build alliances carries weight – particularly in contrast to Steven’s alliance of convenience. Luke recognised that the demographics were against him based on both age and sporting history (presented in all of his quoteworthy glory), and he sought to foster relationships with those he gelled with personality-wise.
Model David Genat quickly became Luke’s new ride-or-die, perhaps a Jericho in the making, and the King of the Jungle also reached out to Pia Miranda, Anastasia Woolmer, and Janine Allis. While this group was unable to hold together in the face of the ominous Sporty Seven majority, I wouldn’t count Luke or his budding relationships out yet. He’s a scrappy player, later managing to weasel critical information about the vote out of Nova, and with his past Survivor experience under his belt, he could do some damage – particularly if he can foster loyal allies. Either way, tonight clearly showed that two years have not tarnished Luke’s entertainment value and I’m stoked to watch him play his off-kilter brand of Survivor once again.
While Steven and Luke may have been the driving forces behind the alliance-building through the premiere, the strategy of the vote ultimately came down to a fascinating pas de trois performed by a trio of strong women: Pia, Anastasia, and Nova. Each emerged as truly compelling characters and players through the episode, and while it was unfortunate that we had to lose one of them, at least we can recall the ebbing and flowing dance of their game tonight.
It began with the targeting of Pia – a consensus choice by the Sporty Seven looking to “keep the tribe strong.” Perhaps it’s rich coming from an alliance including ET, who seemed physically wiped after his first bout with Andy in the reward challenge, Susie, who seemed to struggle with the obstacles, and Steven and Simon, who failed to close the deal with the hammer-throwing at the immunity challenge. But it’s not an unreasonable concern given Australian Survivor’s penchant for going hard on the physicality of challenges (particularly in the first Champions vs. Contenders iteration). So Pia – fit in her own right, but paling in comparison to the tribe filled with professional athletes – became the easy call.
But Nova wasn’t convinced. Pia might not be the strongest among them, but she had heart and brought positive energy to the camp. Maintaining tribe morale is often underrated in strategic considerations, but for Nova, it was front and centre because there was a far more dangerous opponent in her sights: Anastasia. Whereas Pia carried positive energy through the camp, Anastasia brought an intensity that put Nova off. Maybe it was her hovering about in “Nova’s kitchen,” perhaps it was her throwing Susie’s name out when Nova awkwardly came upon the minority five discussing the vote at the well, but Nova sensed that Anastasia would be more damaging to the tribe and would be the better player to cut loose.
She proposed the idea to Susie after telling her that the minority were gunning for her, and she slipped the name to Luke when he pried her for information, but they didn’t seem to find traction. But the latter turned the next cog as Luke relayed the information back to Anastasia who began to panic. It was understandable – Anastasia had shown her wiry strength in the challenges, winning a critical point for the Champions in the reward. But she lacked the numbers to make a counter-attack. She and Luke tried solidifying their agreement with David, Pia, and Janine, but to what end? The best they could do was make a tough call, and perhaps they had to stick with the “keep the strong” mantra and cut Pia.
But Pia sensed that something was not right. Anastasia seemed rightfully concerned, but Pia wasn’t going to just hope for the best. As a legitimate Survivor fan, she was determined to keep her head about her and spin the game in her favour, and she set right to work. Her first point of call was to approach Susie, commiserating over their names being bandied about and looking for a collaboration on an alternative. After all, she just wanted to be there and play Survivor. Toeing the line between playing for pity and presenting her smaller stature as being a physical asset, her play made its way to Nova and recharged her desire to target Anastasia.
So Nova took the baton from Pia and took her pitch to ET and suggested a change in plan: keep Pia, boot Anastasia. And thus Pia was spared, and Anastasia became the first boot of the season. Many ex-Survivors have described the pre-Tribal scrambling as a lottery wheel: the target keeps shifting and shifting until it stops on the unlucky target. I imagine the way tonight’s vote played out is how many a Survivor vote plays out, but being able to watch the to-and-fro unfold was fascinating.
MVP of the night has to go to Pia. Not only did she have the right gut read that she was the true target during Anastasia’s growing paranoia, but she managed to transform that instinct into an effectual move. By appealing to Susie, another target for being perceived as weak, and Nova, a woman with a plan but in need of a push, she was able to save herself. Even at Tribal, understandably anxious given the high likelihood she could be going home, she managed to strike a balance between endearing desire to not be the first one out and a thoughtful pitch on her value to a tribe laser-focused on strength. As a fan of the show, Pia was determined to take control of her own game, and she earned another day on the beach to show for her stellar efforts. For her first rodeo, she showed great instinct and nuance in her gameplay, and I hope this is only the beginning of what Pia will bring to the season.
Nova, meanwhile, emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Steven may have assembled the body of the Sporty Seven, and ET may be the notional head, but it appears that Nova is the neck, controlling where it’s looking. She disagreed with a consensus decision to vote out Pia, and once she felt like she had a case, she ran with it, and her alliance followed. Cutting Anastasia removed an adversary for her – an intense player with whom a rivalry appeared to be brewing, if Anastasia’s comments about Nova’s control of the camp kitchen and her unscathed knees are anything to go by. And saving Pia also curried favour with her, giving her more options and relationships to use going forward. Nova saw what she wanted, and she was able to practice her politicking to achieve it. The big concern is whether she’ll now draw the target that Steven was so worried about. The minority alliance knows Nova was the instigator of the Anastasia plan, given her possible mistake in leaking it to Luke, so she could find herself in the hot seat. But for now, Nova is riding high.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s hard to say what Anastasia did wrong to deserve becoming the first boot. While there was a high energy to her demeanour, it didn’t seem especially egregious. She spiralled initially upon hearing she was Nova’s preferred target but ultimately settled on a plan with her alliance – a plan that might have worked save for Pia’s scrambling. She gave it her all in the challenges, and with her dual skills as a ballet dancer (not far from sport in its physical demands) and a memory champion, she would have been a valuable asset to the tribe long term.
Perhaps Anastasia could have taken the Pia approach and appealed to the majority alliance to keep her, or maybe she could have tried to smooth things over with Nova. Or perhaps she should have found a way to subdue Pia to keep her from scrambling. But that’s a lot of vague demands to make. Really, I think Anastasia is one of those first boots who got unlucky with circumstance and just couldn’t get enough of a foothold to turn around. It’s a shame to see her go so early as I was excited to see such a unique champ in the mix, and her personality shone in her confessionals, but at least we’ll always have tonight.
THE CONTENDERS, or THE ANDY MELDRUM SHOW
The Contenders tribe got the short shrift tonight. There were a few introductory packages (an editing conceit I’m happy to see return this year) showcasing John, Daisy Richardson and Sarah Ayles. Daisy further coined the “young diverse group” vernacular, while she, John, Matt, Laura Choong, and Shaun Hampson got brief highlights through the challenges. Terrible shelter foreman Casey Hawkins and bad-bean sufferer Baden Gilbert got momentary highlights for less favorable reasons. But that was about it. Hannah Pentreath, Harry Hills and Sam Schoers barely even appeared on-screen. But their time will come… and hopefully soon.
Tonight’s Contenders story was dominated by Andy Meldrum, the marketing exec slash travel and golf blogger slash cocky superfan. I have to admit, the overconfident, arrogant superfan is not my favourite casting trope, and if Andy remains as strong a presence as he was in tonight’s episode, then I expect I’ll tire of him quickly. That said, he made a good showing here. He managed to hold his tongue and avoid drawing attention to himself on Day 1, though you do have to wonder if letting his tribe neglect fire and instead focus on one of the strangest shelter designs this side of Rupert’s hole-in-the-sand from All-Stars was the best call. Although he lost out against ET in the reward challenge, he initially eked out a draw, and come the immunity challenge, he helped clinch the win in the hero position smashing the tiles. His job lie may have been unnecessary, but it didn’t backfire either, so that’s something.
That said, it’s hard to really get a sense of whether Andy’s confidence will help or hurt him until we get a better understanding of the tribe dynamics on the Contenders. We don’t know anything about the factions forming on that beach, much less how Andy figures into them. At this point, it’s a shot in the dark, and it’s a bit disappointing that the premiere episode showed us so little of an entire tribe. That said, Australian Survivor’s larger episode count and longer runtimes do usually give us time to meet our players as they become relevant to the story. Lest we forget, last season Benji didn’t receive a confessional until around Episode 8, and he ended the season with the most confessionals despite finishing in 8th place! While I wouldn’t advocate for this kind of lopsided editing, I am confident we’ll learn more about the Contenders in time – and I can’t wait. From the little we know from the truncated pre-season, it looks to be a fun crowd!
THE ADVENTURE AWAITS…
One episode down, so many to go! As always, Australian Survivor knows how to kick off a season in style and here’s hoping we’ve got an exciting season ahead. For better or worse, at least we don’t have to wait long to find out what happens next…
OTHER #SURVIVORAU COVERAGE on INSIDE SURVIVOR
Australian Survivor will be back Thursday 25 July at 7.30pm AEST, followed by episodes airing Sunday to Tuesday, 28-30 July.
Be sure to check back in on Inside Survivor as Alice Barelli, Dylan Vidal and myself will continue to review each episode and recap everything that goes down, down under.
Also, be sure to tune in for this season’s Power Rankings as Season 2’s Sarah Tilleke & Tessa O’Halloran are joined by Season 3’s Fenella McGowan!