30 from 30: #6 – The First Survivor Tribe Swap

The Moment:

Survivor introduces the tribe swap for the first time, providing a necessary shake-up for the game.

We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

30 from 30 - Survivor Tribe Swap logo 1

Why It Matters:

It’s hard to believe now with Survivor about to premiere its 31st season, but by the third season Survivor knew they had to start switching things up. Survivor strategy was still in its infancy, so producers couldn’t rely on the contestants to keep things interesting. Thus, a game mechanism was introduced, and it would have an effect on nearly all future seasons.

Even without the benefit of hindsight, the third season of Survivor was shaping up to be a little dull. A miscalculation in the survival aspect had the contestants devoid of energy and/or cowering from the LITERAL LIONS OUTSIDE THEIR CAMP. That tended to make sneaking away to discuss strategy a bit more difficult than in previous seasons.

Did you hear who voted for Lex?
Did you hear who voted for Lex?

Then on day 13 of Survivor: Africa, each tribe received tree mail instructing them to send three of their members (both Boran and Samburu had six members) on a mysteriously vague quest. After a little tribe wide discussion, Kelly, Big Tom, and Lex- my hometown hero- were selected for Boran.

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 1.24.04 PM
Our children will look upon the SD era with horror and disdain.

Having gained control of Samburu early in the game due to his alliance of the young, Silas volunteered to go along with the only two tribe mates not in his alliance: Frank and T-Bird. Silas would go on to regret this decision once the three Samburus met up with the trio from Boran and discovered the purpose of their “quest”.

Poor Silas has no idea how ironic this fist bump will soon be.
Poor Silas has no idea how ironic this fist pump will soon be.

For the first time ever, Jeff announced a twist that would change the course of the game: Kelly, Tom, and Lex would now be on the Samburu tribe, with Frank, Teresa, and Silas now joining Boran. As we all know, this would not go so well for Silas.

"Smokes" may be what he said, but it was probably not the word he had in mind.
“Smokes” may be what he said, but it was probably not the word he had in mind.

Now at the Boran camp, T-Bird told the original Boran members (Kim Johnson, Clarence, and Ethan), that she and Frank would be loyal if they all voted off Silas first. Silas also attempted to scheme, mostly with Boran outsider Clarence. However, Teresa even suggested that Boran throw the next immunity challenge, desperate as she was to be rid of Silas. Wanting to protect his friends Big Tom and Lex (and knowing that two extra allies with nowhere else to go are better than one with a group of friends on the other side), Ethan- though initially hesitant to intentionally lose at anything- seems to have gone along with the plan.

Ethan, Kim, and T-Bird were able to throw the giant puzzle challenge with ease, despite Silas’s best efforts to lift all the pieces and solve the puzzle itself. Silas’s subsequent attempts to convince the original Boran members to vote for Frank were unsuccessful and he was swiftly voted out, becoming the first person to be screwed by the swap.

At least you get to live in infamy!
At least you get to live in infamy!

Luckily for the show, Silas wasn’t exactly well-liked by the audience, so the twist was a success and a new layer to the show was in place.

Dammit, casuals.
Dammit, casuals. Why didn’t you bring T-bird back?! Kimmi better be worth it.

The Impact:

The effect came as early as the next episode, with Lindsey’s reaction to Silas’s ouster being one of the earlier times one tribe is noticeably shocked by the other’s elimination. While it can occasionally happen with a particularly shocking early vote off, such reactions are usually due to someone seeing their former tribe mate, be they friend or enemy, voted off (e.g. Max Dawson’s elimination in Worlds Apart).

To Survivor‘s credit, they quickly embraced their show’s evolution into a competition show rather than a chance to watch strangers build a society. They also realized that adjusting the game itself was important to both the entertainment value of the show and the strategy of the game.

The first two seasons of Survivor were fairly straight forward, with one tribe ultimately voting out the other. Sure, Jerri and Amber went a little early in Australia, but the final three were still from one tribe in each season. But isn’t that true of Africa as well, you ask? Sure, but how about Marquesas? The Amazon? With the tribe swap, there’s now the question of whether the original tribe will stay together, or if the newly formed swapped tribe will form an alliance. It’s gone either way. The earlier examples were swapped tribes sticking together, but that can lead to an interesting premerge as well. As in Africa, people have worked to save their friends on the other side so they can get back together at the merge. Sometimes they do that by throwing a challenge, like Peih-Gee and Jaime in China, or Mike and Rodney in Worlds Apart.  Unfortunately, Boran’s subtlety and finesse at throwing challenges was apparently not as influential.

There are no pictures of Peih-Gee and Jaime laughing about the challenge they're throwing, so here's Courtney's Jaime impression instead.
There are no pictures of Peih-Gee and Jaime laughing about the challenge they’re throwing, so here’s Courtney’s Jaime impression instead.

Survivor has tweaked the tribe swap, which comes in many forms. Marquesas and China don’t hit the reset button by evening up the numbers, as Kathy, Paschal, and Neleh of Marquesas and Aaron and James of China go from the larger tribe to the smaller tribe. China also had the trade format, a la Africa‘s original swap recipe. Then there’s your schoolyard picks: Panama, Micronesia, Gabon. Usually though, it’s random (unless you’re a conspiracy theorist): a buff draw, a rock pulled, a smashed egg… I’m sure they’ll have the key party Tyler dreamed of soon enough.

Though some fans complain about tribe swaps being unfair — because seemingly good players can find themselves in a bad spot at the drop of a buff — the tribe swap keeps the game from getting stagnant. And it’s true there have been some hilariously one-sided tribe swaps when it comes to physical strength: CaramoanBlood vs Water, Worlds Apart. But just as it is in Game of Thrones, seeing characters interact with people they haven’t met before is exciting! Even better, the threat of the swap keeps the players on their toes. While several future players would still be considered screwed by the tribe swap, many others also learned the importance of not ostracizing those outside of your initial tribal alliance, as they could soon be your only allies.

Also important? Not throwing immunity idols into the ocean.
Also important? Not throwing immunity idols into the ocean.

What Else Made the List?

You can view all our 30 from 30 content by clicking here.

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Emma is the token chick of the Purple Rock Podcast. She has watched the show continuously since the second episode and is pretty sure she's never seen the pilot.

Favorite seasons: Heroes vs. Villains, Micronesia, Cambodia, Cook Islands, China, Philippines

Favorite players: Courtney Yates, Parvati Shallow, John Cochran, Cirie Fields, Yul Kwon, Kim Spradlin
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  • andythesaint

    I think if you want to understand the benefit to the swap, you need look no farther than the first season it appeared in: Sambura was shaping up to be a really unpleasant experience. Once the youngs took control, they were completely dismissive of the olds and weren’t even pretending to care. And with the previous two seasons, they had a little reason to be, as there was little the olds could do about it until the merge. With one move, the power shifted and proper team building was re-established. Future players would learn from this mistake, or be doomed repeat it and it’s conseqences (like The Onion Alliance in Gabon).

    Alternatively, South Pacific was a terrible season, in large part because they were able to set the tone in the first episode with the main alliance, and it NEVER CHANGED. Because there was no swap. Change is good. Survivor shouldn’t be a game won in the first 42 minutes.

    • Kemper Boyd

      The first one was such a dynamic shift and it showed up the fact players often didn’t care about anyone who wouldn’t make the jury (though I doubt Silas cared about the jury either). In future when anything could happen at anytime every single player had value. Not always a lesson learnt, see Cochran in South Pacific, but the good players know you can’t win if you’re a dick to people.

  • Barbara Anderson

    I hope that T-Bird will get to come back on Survivor. She was a feisty character who never gave up and tried everything.

    • DrVanNostrand

      I feel like the window is closing for T-Bird, but I’m with you 100%.

      • Barbara Anderson

        I would love for her and one of her kids to compete in the next Blood vs. Water season. After all, she is often compared to Tina. Why not have her come back in a Blood vs. Water season with a child?

    • Kemper Boyd

      I was hugely disappointed she missed out on second chances.

      • Barbara Anderson

        I was too, but my disappointment was lessened a bit after hearing about how rough Cambodia was. I really didn’t want T-Bird to take part in the two roughest settings in the show’s history. That would be T-Bird’s arc on 31-I thought Africa was rough, but Cambodia is worst!

  • DrVanNostrand

    After his “Hey old people, don’t you want one of us young people that hate you to win?” speech, I had a very low opinion of Silas. When the swap happened, I pointed at the TV and laughed for a solid minute. Also, the first swap was definitely a necessary and influential twist, a must have for the list.