“You are witnessing sixteen Americans begin the adventure that will forever change their lives!” One may associate this very sentence with a mixture of excitement, adrenaline, and envy. You may dream of frantically rushing a ship’s deck while being urged to get overboard. Or imagine how you’d mentally prepare yourself to hike miles through uncharted terrain. You can hear the wings on the chopper as your heart beats through your chest and you can’t feel yourself breathing. You’re about to experience one of the hallmark moments of your dream Survivor experience – the marooning.
As viewers, the marooning is the top of the hill before we plunge arms up into the rollercoaster of the much anticipated new season. Over the last two decades, Survivor, like with many of its trademark moments, has twisted and tweaked the marooning to set the tone of a season. Some of these strandings were so intense that it caused last-minute quits in the cast, like the “sky-diving marooning” that never was in The Australian Outback and Survivor: Fiji. Fortunately, most are enthralling, if not down-right epic. Heroes vs. Villains may come to mind when one thinks of legendary.
Many fans are hoping to reignite the magic that was Heroes v. Villains with the upcoming battle of champions in season 40. Similar to previous all-star seasons, we can expect each facet of this showdown to reflect moments from seasons past, including that famous cold open.
A staple to the days of land-locked locations, the hike to camp has experienced its own extinction. Over the early years of Survivor, many maroonings put castaways through a grueling hike to reach their camps, seen in Australian Outback and Africa. But no hike or marooning has ever been as strenuous as in Guatemala. Beginning with a grand introduction amongst ancient temples for returning players Bobby Jon and Stephanie, the Guatemala marooning consisted of an 11-mile race through the jungles of the Mayan Ruins. Some may recall the scenes of castaways sleeping in the jungle overnight, or all the Nakum men collapsing and getting sick. Ultimately, the first tribe to reach the finish line got the better camp. Set in an already harsh location, the season 11 hike proved to be one of the longest and most challenging maroonings of all time.
Blood vs. Water
Another memorable overnight marooning, Blood vs. Water is a rarity in the arc of Survivor history. Introducing the Day Zero twist into the game, season 27 stranded loved-ones scattered across the islands with no supplies for their first night in the Philippines. The following morning we are given a scene of a beautiful sunrise, the shining start to a new season. You see players like Rupert Boneham, Tyson Apostol, and Tina Wesson coming out of the jungle with loved-ones in tow. What starts as a happy, family-themed season of Survivor quickly turns into a ruthless vote-off in the first few minutes of the game. Both tribes must send one person from their tribe to Redemption Island, immediately igniting the intense emotion this season was going to see with loved-ones witnessing their partner be taken out.
Candice Cody, of the returning players, and Laura Boneham, of the new players, are voted out. But before Laura can be sent to Redemption Island, she is entered back into the game by her husband, Rupert, who swaps places with her, the first and only of its kind. The Blood vs. Water marooning gave us a new twist in Day Zero, the nostalgia of returning players, the emotion of the public first vote-off, and the twist of Rupert taking himself out of the game all in a matter of fifteen minutes. It was the beginning of what would prove to be a very memorable season.
The opening vote is not an uncommon tool for producers to use, but the first and only other vote that sent players out of the game was back in Palau. The season opens with twenty strangers being cast to sea in a large boat and told there are two hidden immunity idols on the beach ahead. The first man and woman will receive these immunities, but no one knows for what. All twenty castaways race to shore only to find there are no directions or rules, a Survivor first. They begin building shelter and a camp for all to live, as they believe they will be on one beach. Alliances are quickly being formed as the ambiguity has all contestants on edge.
The next morning Jeff arrives and makes the immunity holders, Ian and Jolanda, alternate selecting members for their new tribes. However, each tribe will only have nine members, meaning two castaways will ultimately never step foot in a challenge or tribal council. What would not be totally shocking in modern-day Survivor, the early vote-off was foreign and seemed incredibly harsh, never had contestants left before even being assigned a tribe. The Ulong and Koror tribes are formed as Jonathan and Wanda are sent away, becoming one of the most notorious and ruthless schoolyard picks in the history of the show.
For the first four seasons, Survivor stuck to a very rigid format: 16 people, predetermined tribes, merge at ten and jury at nine. Thailand was the first season that gave us an early taste of the producers’ creativity for twists. It’s fall 2003, and CBS is promoting Survivor as though we’ll be getting our first Battle of the Sexes, even the first intro of the season has the Survivors split down gender lines. However, it’s not 15 minutes into the first episode that we get our first schoolyard pick of the series. In honor of Thai tradition, the eldest members of the cast, Jake and Jan, build what would become the Sook Jai and Chuay Ghan tribes. While Jake goes for the young, athletic contestants, Jan goes for the older, more experienced contestants, which would ultimately pay off in the end. It was a Survivor first and added a brand new layer to the social game that viewers had never seen.
Panama – Exile Island
In current day seasons, opening twists are almost expected, if not overdone. Now that seasons are themed based off twists instead of location, producers play off the Thailand blueprint to bring contestants in and start their adventure off with a twist that they haven’t seen in seasons past. It was in the 12th installment of the series that we saw the idea of a season based off a theme versus a location. Exile Island opens with four tribes, a first, divided by gender and age. In the beautiful waters of Panama, the castaways travel to an isolated island which will play a huge role in their 39-day adventure. They are introduced to Exile Island: home of one of the first hidden immunity idols and the theme of the season.
The tribes are then immediately put into a reward challenge in which one representative from each tribe will race to retrieve a stone hidden within skulls. The player who does not find a stone will be left behind on Exile Island, a huge social disadvantage as the contestant is left behind in those crucial, early days of bonding. Ultimately, the younger women lose the challenge, and Misty is left behind. It’s a season that really shaped the future of the teens of Survivor, introducing Exile Island, many loved characters, and made one of the best twists of all time permanent: the hidden immunity idol.
While twists and turns are great, you can’t look at previous versions of the marooning without acknowledging the very first. It’s May 31st, 2000, Jeff Probst and sixteen strangers are departing a small fishing village just off the coast of Borneo. Before you know it, the scene is a chaotic frenzy as these characters rush across the ship, throwing materials overboard, as Probst casually yells at them how much time they have before they must get off the boat. This visual of real-life people voluntarily jumping in the ocean with the clothes on their back is a scene which the American viewing audience has never seen.
The shipwreck marooning has been used multiple times, especially in the thirties seasons. The idea of abandoning ship is probably the most classic and most used marooning of all time. Seasons like Cook Islands, Marquesas, Koah Rong, and Game Changers have all had their own variations of the shipwreck. While it may not be epic enough for our champions, there’s no doubt it’s effective in building excitement and is definitely expected to return in future seasons.
“You are going into this game with the clothes on your back!” Under the impression they are headed to a photo shoot, the Pearl Islands castaways are quickly informed that they are starting the game right now with no other clothes or supplies. The announcement is a shock to the castaways, many of whom are in suits and dresses. And even a boy scout uniform. “I don’t have a bra on!” yells first-vote-out Nicole.
The Drake and Morgan tribes are then given a certain amount of money and told they will barter in a Panamanian fishing village, a Survivor first. This provides some of the most memorable scenes for castaways that would later go down as legends. How can anyone forget Rupert, the pirate mascot and future Survivor Hero, stealing the goods of the Morgan tribe to help his tribe get more materials? Or our future queen, Sandra Diaz-Twine, using her bilingual abilities to help connect with the locals for better deals on supplies. It’s an opening that pushes the difficulty level of the living environment to the next level, one of the best introductions to characters we’ve ever gotten, and one of the best examples of the local culture that a season has ever offered.
Cambodia – Second Chance
Arguably the biggest shift in Survivor seasons over time has been the transition from location themes to social themes. The thirties, aside from 31 and 32, found a home in Fiji and metaphorically “set up camp.” There was just one season in the thirties that still had a splash of culture and a marooning that involved an introduction to the new location. When you think back to seasons like Vanuatu and China, you may recall the castaways being immersed into cultural traditions, like praying in a Buddhist temple. Cambodia (aka Second Chance) was the last of its kind when it came to cultural maroonings.
Our 20 returning castaways open the highly-anticipated season by marching through the Angkor Wat temples and riding through the streets of Cambodia. Much like other all-star seasons, we get many confessionals from players on their thoughts of returning and what they are going to do differently their second time around. It set the stage for an epic battle and gave another option on how veteran players can be tossed back into the game of Survivor.
You can’t look at openings of returnee seasons without returning to the first All-Stars. It was the first 18 person cast, it was the first time Survivors were split into three tribes, and it was the first time veteran players were returning to the game. I can remember the electricity pulsing through my veins as we watched the likes of Richard Hatch, Sue Hawk, Colby Donaldson, and Rob Cesternino cruising through the Panamanian waters with a military escort. You see the Saboga, Mogo Mogo, and Chapera tribes marching down the sand headed to the beach. We get the infamous line of legend Boston Rob: “Nobody trusts anybody. You hear me? No one trusts anyone!” which set the tone for one of the most ruthless seasons of old school Survivor.
Heroes vs. Villains
Alas, we hit the holy grail of all maroonings. Season 20 (Heroes vs. Villains), the 10 year anniversary season, was as epic as one opening can be. Jeff Probst sets the tone by revisiting scenes of previous seasons and giving a flashback to the first ten years of the franchise. He introduces the South Pacific, claiming that “for centuries man has traveled these waters to meet in combat.” He crosses the rocky shores of Samoa, waves crashing behind him, before he introduces our castaways with: “we have gathered twenty of them to play one more time.”
The scene cuts into the clouds, with adrenaline-pumping music playing in the background, and for the first time, we see the four choppers, onboard ten of Survivor’s greatest heroes and ten of the most notorious villains. We hear from multiple legends, stepping into the ring to fight for the ultimate championship. The castaways slowly invade the beaches, stepping off the chopper one at a time as they metaphorically step onto the battlefield and go to war. Probst has a grand opening for the contestants, introducing the theme and asking questions to some very notable players. However, this was no ordinary marooning as these returnees are throwing into a reward challenge right away. The castaways square off in pairs in a very physical showdown. Within the first challenge, we get a dislocated shoulder, a broken toe, and a topless Sugar.
Heroes vs. Villains is not just an epic marooning; the first 20 minutes are possibly the best 20 minutes the show has ever aired. It may have been the most hyped season of all time (up until that point) with one of the best casts the show has ever seen. With its perceived follow-up, season 40’s champions edition, many of us have high hopes that we will see an equally memorable marooning, if not better than its season 20 counterpart.
These are not your every day returning castaways; these are winners. Twenty castaways who have been able to do what hundreds of others have attempted to achieve and failed. Either way, I will rock back and forth in my chair until February 2020 when we get to see Fiji invaded by our returning champions as they enter the biggest showdown in 20 years of the greatest show on television.