Survivor pushes its castaways to the limit in a terrifying episode of Survivor: Kaôh Rōng.
In the build up to the Survivor: Borneo premiere in 2000, the show was promoted as a “survival of the fittest” competition. Sixteen men and women from across America were going to be pushed to their limits in the ultimate test of endurance until only one survived. The details of the format were kept strictly under wraps. The general public only had a vague idea of what the show would entail. But basically, the prevailing sentiment among the American population was – holy s**t, they’re going to kill someone on television! When does it start?
However, outside of a few bug bites and a naked Richard Hatch, the conditions of Survivor’s inaugural season weren’t particularly extreme. It wasn’t until the second season, in The Australian Outback, when viewers realised just how real Survivor could be. When Kucha tribe member Michael Skupin passed out and fell into the campfire, it stunned audiences and sent shockwaves through the Survivor community. The skin dripped from Skupin’s hands; he yelped in pain as his fellow cast members rushed around in a mad panic, openly conversing with production crew members. Eventually, he was airlifted to a hospital in Cairns and later sent to a burn unit in Brisbane due to the severity of his injuries. It was Survivor’s first ever medical evacuation and a truly unique, scary and compelling episode of television.
There have been many medical evacuations since Skupin’s accident in 2001, from the downright terrifying to the seemingly minor. The exit of Caleb Reynolds in the latest episode of Survivor: Kaôh Rōng is up there with the scariest.
In a reward challenge for what was essentially coffee and condiments, the three tribes battled each other, and the 120 degrees heat, in a grueling course that required digging up bags buried 2 feet beneath the sand. It’s hard to do justice to the events that transpired on screen, but the result was three players collapsing due to heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Debbie Wanner was the first to hit the ground; her body had overheated and required medical assistance to get her temperature back down. Then as soon as the challenge was over, Caleb and Cydney Gillon dropped, causing an unprecedented scene where the entire Survivor crew and medical team descended onto “set”. It was a unique experience for a production that is usually very self-contained and doesn’t like to show the mechanics of what goes into making Survivor happen. Viewers got an extraordinary peek behind the curtain at the sheer number of people involved in bringing Survivor to life.
The quick efforts of the production staff, medical team and even the cast members was astounding. With so much happening at once, it’s a testament to everybody involved that they were able to effectively deal with the situation. But while Debbie and Cydney were able to recover well enough to continue, Survivor’s resident doctor, Dr. Joe, determined Caleb was too unfit to continue, and he sadly had to be airlifted from the game. It was a scary and emotional moment to see Caleb barely conscious, his chest purple, and his fellow tribemates distraught. It certainly stands right alongside Skupin’s exit as one of the most shocking and affecting scenes in Survivor history.
There has been a significant debate over whether Survivor is at fault for what happened or whether it was just a case of unfortunate freak circumstances. It isn’t an easy question to answer. It would be rather heartless to say that Survivor wanted this situation to happen. While the hunt for ratings is always on the mind of producers and executives, risking the health and lives of your contestants for the sake of entertainment would be a step too far – even for CBS! After all, even though the episode was compelling television, it wasn’t exactly what one would define as “entertaining”. But there is something to be said about Survivor’s in-built mantra of “push until you can’t push anymore.”
We hear it every season; more and more in recent years. Survivor wants people to give 100%. Players should push themselves to the brink. Quitters face admonishment. Jeff Probst yells from the sidelines at every challenge for people to “Pick it up!” and “Dig!” Players are critiqued and embarrassed if seen falling behind or slowing down. The intention is to create competitive spirit but in the most extreme circumstances, it can lead to situations like this. There has to be a point where the well-being of the players takes precedence over the competition. After watching 12 physically exhausted humans, digging in the sand for over 45 minutes, in 120 degrees heat, with no water (after already spending nine days with little sustenance), there should have been a moment where production considered stopping the challenge. According to Jeff Probst in an interview with Dalton Ross, he did begin running through options in his head in case the players couldn’t complete the challenge. But realistically, it would have seemed wise to stop the challenge once Debbie went down.
So is Survivor fully at blame for what happened? No. But they should take some responsibility rather than having Probst lecture the tribes afterward and tell them what happened was due to them not keeping properly hydrated and pushing themselves too far.
The episode didn’t get any lighter after the evacuation. For some strange reason, Survivor decided to go ahead with the immunity challenge and tribal council instead of heading straight into a swap – which judging by next week’s preview was the original plan at 14 castaways. That meant more time spent with the disastrous Brawn tribe and more scenes of Kyle Jason and Scot Pollard berating and belittling Alecia Holden.
One of the frustrating things about Survivor is the edit can sometimes lead you to believe that an underdog will at some point get redemption or revenge. Most people watch television for some cathartic release. In scripted tv shows the heroes and underdogs almost always prevail, and the villains suffer comeuppance – unless it’s Game of Thrones which takes perverse pleasure in torturing its audience. The unscripted nature of Survivor doesn’t always allow that to happen and therefore despicable people can sometimes triumph over the heroes and the underdogs. Alecia was mocked and cast aside seemingly from Day 1, with tribemates refusing even to call her by her name, and then strong-armed out of the game with no chance at revenge. It was the same major flaw with Survivor: Worlds Apart which turned it into such a dismal season, and the tone set at the end of this latest episode suggests we could be heading in the same direction.
Hopefully, the upcoming tribe swap will shake things up and return us to some of the fun that made the first three episodes such a refreshing change. Otherwise, it won’t just be the players evacuating this season.