Looking Back on Survivor's Most Controversial Twists

Ahead of Survivor's 41st (!) season premiere, we're looking back on some of the CBS hit's biggest twists over the years, including the Medallion of Power and that controversial tribe divide.

By Tierney Bricker Sep 22, 2021 6:15 PMTags
Watch: Jeff Probst Explains New Twists Before "Survivor: Winners at War"

Come on in, guys!

Survivor fans have been waiting a long time to hear Jeff Probst say those iconic words and on Wednesday, Sept. 22, it'll finally happen. After production was halted due to COVID-19, the CBS reality hit is back in action for its 41st season, which Probst is already touting as the "most intense, most difficult and most dangerous" outing they've ever done. 

Of course, it will also have some twists, something Survivor fans have come to expect over the years as the creative team has continued to keep the castaways on their toes by adding new elements to the game. But not all of their ideas have worked—um, where is that Medallion of Power anyway?—which is a risk Probst, who is also the showrunner, is more than okay with if it means keeping the show fresh and exciting after two decades. 

Survivor Season 41: Meet the Cast

"What I do feel in my soul is that when shows get stale is when the audience leaves," Probst told Entertainment Tonight Canada last year. "So even to Survivor fans who say 'I wish for the old days when there weren't twists and turns and hidden immunity idols,' I think maybe you do, but maybe you'd be bored. For me on Survivor, my deal with the fans who watch the show and the people who play is I can only promise you this—we will always try to make it unpredictable and we will always try to go deeper into the human experience." 

Translation: The twists started coming and they won't stop coming. 

So, grab your torches and head back to camp so we can look back on the most controversial changes to the game over the years while enjoying our daily cup of rice.

Tribe Swap

The OG game-changing twist was simple but effective, with host and executive producer Jeff Probst telling the castaways to drop their buffs to reassign the tribes, completely altering alliances, tactics and, ultimately, votes. The first-ever switch up came on Day 13 in Survivor: Africa (the third season of the still-new series), shocking the players and initially polarizing the fanbase.

"There's a history on Survivor, every twist we've ever done people have hated in the beginning," Probst said in preview for season 41. "Going back to season three when we did the first tripe swap. Now, if tribes don't switch, they're upset!"

Immunity Idols

While it's hard to imagine the game of Survivor without hidden immunity idols, they weren't introduced until season 11. But these tokens, which give a player the power to save themselves or another castaway at tribal council, have arguably become one of the most consequential aspects of the show. Still, it took a few outings to get it right, Probst admitted to The Slug in 2007. 

The very first time we introduced it, you had to play it before anybody voted. Then the second time we introduced it, you could play it after the votes had been made and read," he explained. "So it was an absolute get-out-of-jail-free card. [In Survivor: Fiji], I think we found the happy medium. You must play the Idol after the votes have been cast but before I read them. Before the votes, I say, 'How confident are you? Do you want to take a chance? Or should you play your Idol?' That made a dramatic difference. The Idols get played. Nobody is sitting on their Idol until the end and taking it home as a souvenir."

Probst even picked the immunity idol as his favorite twist, telling Entertainment Weekly, "It's just given us so much story that I laugh when people hit me on Twitter and say, 'You should do a season without any idols and without any twists.'"

That Tribe Divide

For its 13th season, Survivor made its most controversial decision ever: The four tribes were divided by race and ethnicity (African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, and European American).

But in a 2007 interview, Probst said he had "zero" regrets with how the season turned out. 

"I'm glad it got people talking, if only for a moment," he told The Slug. "Personally, I'm happy that our show is more ethnically diverse. It's more fun. It's more interesting. So whatever road it took to get there, I think it's been good. And as a result, we had a much more interesting group in the Cook Islands and once again in Fiji. We have a more interesting group just due to diversity and coming from different worlds."

Exile Island

Several years after the controversial Redemption Island twist was first introduced, the show was set to bring it back for season 29. But two days before filming began, Probst called an audible.

"We were going to do Redemption and we had been trying to come up with a new idea," Probst told EW at the time. "But we didn't have it, and so my feeling was, if we don't have a better idea, let's go with what we know works. And then another idea came to me and I ran it past the guys and suddenly it was ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. That's what we should do!'"

It ended up being Exile Island, which was first utilized in season 10 before getting its own season-long concept two seasons later. And it was resurrected for the 29th season after not being used for several years.

And it was actually Mike White, the creator of The White Lotus who made it to the finals of Survivor: David vs. Goliath, that inspired Probst pull off the last-minute switch.

"Yes, I am glad that we decided to change it up—and in a weird way I owe thanks to Mike White," Probst said back in 2014. "He was over at our house for dinner just a couple of weeks before we started shooting. I confided in him about the basic creative for the Blood vs. Water season and when I mentioned Redemption Island coming back he had a very lackluster response—'Oh, you're doing Redemption again?' The words hit me like a stray, leftover Medallion of Power right between the eyes. We had debated Redemption Island during our Survivor creative meetings and for some reason hearing him say it at that moment tipped the scale."

Redemption Island

Ahead of the start of the season 22, Probst said he was "the most excited" he'd been about the show in a long time.

"I really hope Redemption Island adds a new layer that we can use for years to come," he told EW. "We have no idea what's going to happen. It's a big risk. It could fail miserably. I don't think it's going to."

Well, it didn't exactly fail, but it didn't really work either, serving as almost a test run for Edge of Extinction. (In Redemption Island, voted off contestants would compete weekly in a duel to remain in the game.)

Final-Four Fire-Making Challenging

Just when fan-favorite Ben Driebergen looked like he was finally going to be voted out of the game after losing the final individual immunity challenge, a new wrinkle was added in at the last moment that ultimately helped lead him to victory: He had to make fire before rival Devon Pinto.

While some believed the fire-making challenge was thrown in at the end of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers purely for Ben's benefit, Probst shot down that theory and it's remained in the game ever since. 

"This idea came about to solve a problem that has bothered me for years," he explained to EW in 2017. "If someone plays a great game and gets to the final four, it has always bothered me that the other three can simply say, 'We can't beat him, so let's all just vote him out.' So this year we decided to make a change. If you get to final four, you are guaranteed a shot to earn your way to the end. And if you are the one to win the final four challenge, you are in charge of who you take and who you force to fight for it in a fire-making showdown. And of course, it goes without saying, we got lucky with a huge million dollar showdown between Ben and Devon. It was electric."

The Medallion of Power

File this one under: Blink-and-you'd-miss-it twists.

Only featured in Survivor: Nicaragua (season 21), this object allowed the tribe holding it to receive an advantage in a challenge should they decide to use it. It was retired by Day 12 and never seen again.

When queried during a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session if there were any production decisions he regretted, Probst responded, "Medallion of Power. I never liked it."

"Here's the truth and any show creator will tell you this—you don't know what will work until you try it," he continued. "If it's right you're a genius, if it's wrong, you're an idiot. I like the risk – I'm okay being an idiot so long as I believe in the idea. Medallion of Power I didn't believe in so that was a hard one."

Idol Nullifiers

With great power should come great risk on Survivor. Which is why the creative team introduced this hidden immunity idol-negating talisman in season 37 (Dan Rengering was its inaugural casualty), with Probst telling Yahoo at the time, "Its mere existence adds another layer of uncertainty to the game."

It also added a level of confusion about the terms under which a contestant can actually play it and whether or not another immunity idol could be used if a player had another one in their back pocket. 

"The Nullifier blocks the use of one specific idol played for one specific person," Probst explained to EW. "If Dan had a second idol, he could have played it, and barring another Nullifier with his name on it, he would have been safe."

Island of the Idols

LOL, remember when Survivor erected massive busts of iconic winners Rob "Boston Rob" Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine when the two returned as mentors for season 39? Good times. 

Island of the Idols gave banished players the distinct advantage of receiving advice from the two ex-champs at random points in the game, with Boston Rob and Sandra offering essential lessons that could benefit them. Sure, it was fun to see the duo back on the beach, but the twist ultimately fell a little flat.

Fire Tokens

Introduced in season 40, the fire tokens represented Survivor's version of currency, with each player starting off with one and having to bequeath it to a remaining castaway if they were sent to Extinction. More fire tokens, more opportunities to barter or gain advantages.

While some fans didn't love the new element, Probst is a major fan of the twist, so viewers can expect to see it for seasons to come.

"We get excited because we go, a currency, even though it's not sexy, it's a foundation," Probst told Entertainment Weekly when discussing the possibility of reaching 50 seasons. "Maybe we can build on that. Maybe the next 10 seasons can be building on how Survivor has a currency."

The Edge of Extinction

First introduced in season 38, ousted players were given an opportunity to get back in the game...if they could survive living on the desolate Edge.

"The idea for Edge of Extinction came in a bit of a flurry," Probst admitted to EW in 2019. "It presented itself incredibly fast and arrived pretty much fully formed. All the elements—the desolation of Extinction, the secret nature of it, the two shots to get back in, and the possibility of everyone being on the jury—was just part of the package that the creative winds sent our way. We tend to look at these kind of ideas as gifts rather than risks."

The twist proved to be controversial, but ultimately crucial, with Chris Underwood returning from the Edge to win the game. 

"Extinction was very exciting to every department of our team because it challenged us in so many new ways," Probst explained. "It was an entirely new world to figure out creatively, aesthetically, and from a cinematic point of view. But it's also a completely separate game happening with another tribe living on another beach, and that involves every single department of our 400-plus crew. We all just went for it!"

Though many fans were not thrilled to hear the Edge of Extinction would be brought back for season 40, Probst revealed it was an essential tool in recruiting 20 former winners to return. 

"I did feel that when we called winners, that if they thought it was one and out—'I'm voted out and I'm done'—their chances of saying yes were not as high as if it would be if I said 'No matter what, you will have another shot at the prize,'" he told EW last year.

Shortened Gameplay

For the first time in its long history, the contestants were tasked to outwit, outplay and outlast one another for just 26 days on season 41, down from the standard 39. But that doesn't mean fans should expect a less intense game. 

"We accelerated the pace by changing the game to 26 days and then adjusting every aspect of the game to ensure those 26 days were unrelenting," Probst told Parade. "The tribes are not given any daily food staple, and reward challenges are scarce. This had a tremendous impact immediately as their mental and physical energy is instantly challenged."

Survivor: Season 41 premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on CBS.