Unless you’ve been sleeping under a giant statue-head-sized rock, you probably know by now that “Boston” Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine are appearing on the upcoming 39th season: Island of the Idols. However, the Survivor veterans are not in Fiji to play the game, but instead to act as “mentors” for the 20 brand new castaways. But what does that mean exactly?
Thankfully, with the season 39 cast officially announced, and the pre-season press underway, we’ve learned further details into the inner-workings of the new twist and what kind of role Rob and Sandra will play. Host and executive producer Jeff Probst spoke to outlets such as Parade and The Hollywood Reporter to shed some light on the latest Survivor twist.
Below is a helpful, catch-all guide that will hopefully give us all a clearer idea of what we’re in store for this season.
Rob and Sandra Will Stay On Their Own Island
As previously stated, Rob and Sandra will not be living at camp with the castaways but on a separate island—populated by comically large busts of their own faces. They won’t be playing the game or attending Tribal Council, but they will be living off the land, and according to Probst, this was something the former champions requested.
“One of the first things they both said is, ‘If we do this, we want to walk the walk. It gives us the permission to talk the talk,'” the host told Parade’s Mike Bloom. “They were adamant about building their own shelter and surviving out there.”
Castaways Will Be Kept In the Dark About Island of the Idols Twist
Survivor almost always begins with Jeff Probst greeting the castaways and introducing the theme of the season. Things are a little different this time around. The two tribes will not see the familiar blue shirt and dimples as they’re marooned on their respective beaches with no instructions. All they’ll have in the way of a welcome is their Island of the Idols branded buffs.
“We wanted to do a misdirect. Hopefully, the misdirect will be when the players get to their beaches, and I’m not there to greet them,” Probst explained. “All they have to go on is the name of the season. We’re hoping that they think hidden immunity idols are in play in a big way. We’re thinking they think it has to do with these tangible advantages in the game.”
A player will only learn of Rob and Sandra’s involvement if they’re sent to the Island of the Idols (or if another player shares the secret).
There Are Various Methods To Get To the Island of the Idols
“We’re trying to change the device of people getting to the island,” executive producer Matt Van Wagenen said. “So we’re not boxed in and we can keep the contestants guessing. There’s been so much Survivor and precedent that people tend to make predictions. And for a while, they were correct. We go out of our way to keep them on their toes.”
Rob and Sandra Will ‘Test’ Castaways At the Island of the Idols
While Rob and Sandra are described as “mentors,” they’re not just there to dish out advice. The Survivor legends will also offer IOI visitors the chance to gain advantages—this requires a player to put their newly learned Survivor knowledge to the test.
“In the first episode, Rob is going to teach the person how to make fire,” Probst told The Hollywood Reporter’s Josh Wigler. “Before [the person] leaves, Rob will say, ‘Now you have a chance to test how well you learned the lesson. If you can beat me in a fire-making challenge, you can go back to camp with a Hidden Immunity Idol good for one or two Tribal Councils. If you lose to me, you lose your vote at the first Tribal Council.'”
It’s up to the player whether they feel confident to take on the test or not. However, if they say no, Rob and Sandra have the power to negotiate. For example, Rob could make the Idol valid for an extra Tribal Council or choose to give the player a 30-second head-start in the fire-making challenge. “We’ve given Rob and Sandra room to maneuver; they know how far they can negotiate,” said Probst.
The tests won’t always be one-on-one challenges against the mentors; the tests and the advantages will change throughout the season. “Sometimes it will be very basic,” Van Wagenen told Parade. “But other times, people will not even realize that the test has begun. It’s like boiling a frog slowly.”
Probst described a potential test involving a player having to insert themselves into a specific part of a tribal Immunity Challenge. “What you’re testing there is your ability to persuade. You have to go back to your tribe now and convince them to put you in the hero spot when you might not be the obvious choice. It’s this multi-layered thinking.”
The Origin of the Twist
The idea for the Island of the Idols twist was spawned on a leisurely walk back from a challenge rehearsal last year. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly’s Dalton Ross, Van Wagenen recalled how Probst brought up this concept of a Survivor Mount Rushmore. “And that was just the idea of faces on a mountain, I think was how things started. [Probst] had it cooking in his mind for a while.”
Probst also admitted to THR that the twist was a way to bring back Rob, who had previously said he would never play Survivor again. “In thinking about [season 40] and who we want back, we also came up with our list of people who said they’d never play again and Boston Rob was one of those players,” explained Probst. “So how could we get him to come back? What if we made him an idol?”
Ironically, Rob WILL be playing the game again in season 40’s all-winners season, alongside Sandra; whether this was decided before season 39 remains a mystery. What we do know is that both Rob and Sandra were very involved in the mechanics of the Island of the Idols.
“We’re bringing on two people almost as producers,” said Probst. “We asked them, ‘Why don’t you write down a list of lessons you think Survivor players should know?’ Then we took those and decided which ones we wanted to put in the show.”
Survivor: Island of the Idols premieres on CBS on September 25th at 8 pm EST.