Survivor:Borneo, The Beginning of Something Big

Updated: May 15

"To win, you must survive the island. You must survive the vote. And, ultimately, you must survive each other" - Jeff Probst

In the summer of 2000, 16 strangers embarked on a journey unlike any seen on television before. Living on a remote island with few resources, these 16 strangers, called castaways, would be broken up into two tribes, tasked with building a new society while voting someone out of the tribe every week. With only two castaways left, a jury of those they voted out would determine the winner. It was an idea that shouldn't work. But Survivor managed to capture the attention of audiences across America. Twenty years later, it remains one of the most popular shows running today.

Survivor forever changed the landscape of television as we knew it. The initial marooning of castaways paved the way for reality TV to enter the zeitgeist of American culture. That first season was one of the highest-rated programs over the summer, starting a string of eleven straight seasons of Survivor being a top ten ranked show.

The first season, retroactively named Survivor: Borneo, holds a special place in Survivor history. Not only was it the principal season of the show, but it also introduced us to a cast of memorable characters and game-defining strategy. It is the foundation of the game, one that inspired the next twenty years of players.

So let's take a deep dive into the very first episode of Survivor, appropriately entitled "The Marooning." The show opens up with our 16 castaways meeting up in a village in the South China Sea to board a boat that will ferry them to their home for the next 39 days.

I remember watching this marooning when the show debuted in 2000. There was a sense of excitement as the castaway jumped overboard, chaotically scavenging whatever supplies they could. Though the marooning has become more theatrical over the years, those excited nerves over what was about to come still crept back over me like a warm blanket.

The show divided the castaways into two tribes, named after the beaches they will reside. Tagi, who wore orange buffs, consisted of Sonja, Richard, Sue, Kelly, Rudy, Sean, Dirk, and Stacey. Pagong, who wore yellow buffs, consisted of Joel, Gervase, Colleen, Gretchen, Greg, Jenna, B.B., and Ramona. Of this cast, six would return to play on future seasons, though none finished higher than third place.

Life at camp was vastly different in these early iterations of the show, especially compared to the breakneck speed the game moves at now. The strategy wasn't an overly important characteristic of Survivor in the early years. That doesn't mean there wasn't any strategic thinking, but it played a smaller role in camp life.

Camp contributions, such as collecting wood or providing food, were the premium assets back in the day. As much stock went into keeping someone around who could catch fish as strategic alliances. This first episode illustrated how those tribal dynamics would come to dominate the early part of the game.

Throughout episode one, some of the older tribe members struggled to fit in with both tribes. On Tagi, the strong personalities of Rudy and Richard rubbed the other tribemates the wrong way. "I have to fit in with them. There are more of than me", said Rudy when detailing the tribal dynamics. Richard similarly recognized his direct nature irritates others.

Self-awareness is an undervalued trait in a game like Survivor. It would be easy for someone like Rudy to try and make others do what he wants them to, but he has little power on his own to do so. As he so astutely indicated, there are more of the younger tribe members than him, so he needs to do what he can to fit in with them. Richard recognized this and made the necessary adjustments to (SPOILER ALTER) eventually win the game.

On Pagong, B.B. struggled to learn this lesson. When the younger tribe members didn't want to do work around camp, he takes personal offense. After Colleen didn't complete the one job she had to do for the day, all B.B. does is complain to Gretchen. This unwillingness to meet his tribemates where they are at plays a role in his ouster.

B.B. also makes the mistake of letting Gretchen get a fire started for Pagong. Like I said, being valuable at camp only increases the odds of you staying. He even commented to Romona early in the episode about being the only two people on the tribe who knew where the water well was, giving them a better chance at safety. Instead of making himself a tribal asset, he became expendable.

Before jumping to the immunity challenge and first-ever tribal council, I wanted to highlight something that really stuck out. One of the prevailing themes of this first episode was Jeff's narration of vital aspects of the game. Modern Survivor moves too fast for this type of storytelling, but it was a lot of fun watching young Probst explain the very basics of the game. Hell, he even gave us a recap of why certain people could get voted out. I thoroughly loved this and am begging the Survivor producers to find some way to bring this storytelling back!

Alright, back to your regularly scheduled programming. As we approach the first immunity challenge, there is an excitement in the air. The tribes all gather around their tree mail, accompanied by an eloquent explanation fo tree by Jeff Probst, to read the first ever immunity challenge clue. Tree mail is another aspect of Survivor that has changed over the years. I understand it doesn't add dramatic value, but I am enjoying these moments. It's like watching old family videos and reminiscing over the simpler times.

For the challenge, the two tribes had to carry a raft through the ocean, lighting torches along the way. When arriving at the beach, it was a race to light the remaining torches before lighting a large fire at a giant totem.

Compared to today's standards, this is a tame challenge, but it must have felt monumental at the time. Watching it back twenty years later feels like I am watching a replay of the first Super Bowl. It is unreal. The show would later revisit this challenge during Survivor: Second Chances, featuring Borneo's own Kelly Wigglesworth.

Pagong ended up pulling out the challenge win. The race between the two was fairly close until Sonja fell. Her gaffe caused her tribe to slow down, allowing Pagong to light all their fires the fastest to secure the win. To put that little cherry on top of the victory sundae, Pagong got to set the entire statue/totem on fire and dance around in celebratory joy. It felt like Lord of the Flies, which, quite frankly, is an aspect of tribe immunity challenges that has been missing from the show.

Back at camp, some conversations happened, but there was little strategy discussed. It is weird watching these early tribal councils where everyone is just trying to figure Survivor strategy.

Not to jump too far into the future, but seven people received votes during the first tribal council after the merge. Another way to put that, a whopping 70% of the whole tribe received votes! It is crazy how little strategy the castaways used this season. Even if Richard Hatch does create the winning strategy blueprint for all future players, this first season was the Wild Wild West people.

The big names on the chopping block heading tribal council were Rudy, who was annoying some of the younger women, and Sonja, who cost the tribe the immunity challenge. As the tribe walks to camp, Jeff's narration also indicates that Richard could be in trouble.

It should come as a surprise to no one that the conversation quickly divulged into a discussion about the perceived weakest person and one perceived to be most annoying, both of whom were the elderly members of the tribe. It is a conversation that happens no less than two times a season, every season. No matter how much Survivor changes, something always stays the same.

Sonja ends up getting the boot by a vote of 4-3-1. So what did she do wrong?

Honestly, she didn't do anything to get voted out other than falling in the immunity challenge. Sonja seemed well-liked, but I don't know if she would have been long for the game, so maybe it was for the best. Rudy did have his detractor as Kelly and Stacey approached Sue with a plan to vote out Rudy. Ultimately, she chose strength over personality.

And that's it, folks. We relived all the first from the series premiere of Survivor. We should be back in a few days with another rewind of the second episode as we slowly make our way through season one of Survivor.

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