Let’s party like it’s 2001! Big Brother UK returned earlier this month. There’s talk of an upcoming Pop Idol reunion. And Survivor UK is finally back on the air after 22 years away. So throw on your S Club 7 CD, baggy jeans, and visible G-string, and let’s recap the season premiere.
In many ways, this debut episode of Survivor UK could have been plucked straight out of the early Noughties. It was low-key, low-budget Saturday night light entertainment with HD cameras. Between Joel Dommett’s pun-laced quips and camp narration to the pop music soundtrack to the glossy VTs, it very much felt like a show made to air immediately after the BBC’s mega-hit Strictly Come Dancing.
That doesn’t necessarily mean those things were all bad, even if Joel’s commentary over the camp scenes threw me for a loop. It’s easy to forget after 45 seasons, but the US edition of the show started with Jeff Probst narrating over camp scenes for the first couple of editions. Plus, narration is built into UK reality shows, from Big Brother to The Traitors, so it was probably a comforting familiarity for new viewers.
And that’s the big thing we have to remember here. Survivor hasn’t aired in the UK for 22 years. I don’t just mean the British version of the show, which only lasted two seasons before it was axed in 2002. Not a single version of Survivor has aired in the UK since then, not on broadcast or cable television anyway. Australian Survivor and Survivor: South Africa have recently appeared on Amazon Prime, but that’s as far as it goes.
So, most people tuning in to tonight’s premiere will have never seen the show before. This is all new to them: tree mail and tribal council and immunity idols. The slow-paced, old-school vibes and viewer hand-holding were therefore necessary. That could prove frustrating to long-time Survivor fans who just want to get to the action straight away. But if you put yourself in the shoes of a first-timer, you should be able to give the show some leeway.
I will say that the pop music and Joel’s cheesy comedy approach give Survivor UK a unique vibe. If there’s a criticism you could level at US Survivor and its English-speaking counterparts, things can often feel a bit samey (that has been a common complaint of the New Era seasons). Sure, purists might scoff at Joel munching a banana mid-marooning and Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road playing over a player introduction, but it could be what Survivor UK needs to stand out.
Also, British reality television has always thrived on its humour and not taking itself too seriously. Part of the reason The Traitors was such a success here last year was because it wasn’t afraid to poke fun at itself and play with the format. If Survivor UK can tap into that same audience, then it’s onto a winner.
As for the episode itself and the castaways, it was about what I expected from a premiere. It was very much in line with the first episode of Australian Survivor’s 2016 revival. The focus was primarily on challenges and building camp, with alliances and strategy almost non-existent. The approach from the players was pure old-school Survivor, centered on tribe strength and assets at camp.
There was also a lot of cautious energy permeating both tribes, La Nena and Caletone, in terms of gameplay and personality. It was like each player was taking time to get comfortable with each other and being on camera in their underwear. Nobody in particular popped off the screen or hogged the limelight, with the tribe versus tribe battle acting as the main source of tensions across the episode.
That’s not to say there weren’t any interesting personalities. Laurence, with his posh accent and quips about missing his yacht, was an early stand-out. Jess showed signs of a bubbly personality that is bound to explode in future episodes. Limerick boxer Lee looks to be the macho smack-talker of the group. And how can you forget about a man who literally changed his name by deed poll to Pegleg?
But the majority of them felt low energy and apprehensive, which sapped some of the excitement out of the episode. However, having watched the second episode, I’m happy to report that things do improve in that regard. More personalities and tensions begin to arise in Episode 2, which overall was much stronger and more promising than the season premiere.
The tension of the first episode was all about the tribe showdown, with La Nena getting off to a winning start. Not only did the blue tribe win the marooning challenge to win all the supplies and fire-making tools, but they also came out on top in the first Immunity Challenge, a hold-up-these-buckets endurance test.
Caletone had it rough from the start, unable to make a fire or eat; it left them feeling depleted and fatigued just two days into the game. And while Nathan and Shai did their damnedest in the Immunity Challenge, it wasn’t enough to lead the tribe to victory, as Richard, holding up two buckets by the end, dropped out.
The orange tribe’s first trip to tribal council saw three players’ names on the chopping block. Originally, it appeared that Shai was in trouble for annoying some of his tribemates due to his bossy attitude (which we didn’t really see much of?). But his impressive performance in the challenge essentially saved him. That left two others in the crosshairs: Richard, who ultimately lost them the challenge, and Leilani, who was the first to drop out and hand off her bucket.
As I mentioned, there was no real sense of alliances or strategy taking place on the Caletone beach. Tinuke talked about feeling bad if she had to vote for Richard, and Nathan said that his opinion of Shai had changed after his challenge performance. But, in the end, it came down to tribe strength and the results of the challenge, meaning that Richard became the first person voted out of Survivor UK.
It’s kind of ironic that a man named Richard won the very first season of Survivor US, and another Richard was booted first on the (revived) first season of Survivor UK. There’s not much else to add about Richard; he seemed perfectly affable, but him being the one to cost his team the win sealed his fate.
As I said, it was a rather humdrum first episode but one that was probably needed as an introduction for new viewers. And with the second episode (already available on BBC iPlayer) showing much more promise, I have high hopes that Survivor UK will find its footing and become a permanent part of the worldwide Survivor franchise.