Sunday, September 16, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: Rediscovering The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles

The complete cinematic adventures of Indiana Jones make their high-def debut this Tuesday, so it seemed an appropriate time to look back at this overlooked entry in the daredevil archaeologist's canons. After the popular reception accorded to the opening flashback sequence of 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which had teenaged Indy (played by the late River Phoenix) acquire his trademark fedora, bullwhip, fear of snakes, and the scar on his chin in one very busy morning, creator George Lucas felt there was enough grist in that mill to expand Indiana Jones' adolescent escapades out to a weekly palette. Thus was born TV's The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles:

Rather than trade on the running-and-jumping that were the hallmark of big screen Indy, Lucas envisioned Young Indiana Jones as a multi-year saga that would detail Indy's entire life from birth all the way to the first time we (chronologically) see him in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. With episode titles like "British East Africa, September 1909" and "Verdun, September 1916," the goal was to track our hero's journeys around the world, meeting personages such as Teddy Roosevelt, T.E. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, etc. in a historically accurate travelogue that would be educational, to boot. In other words (to twelve-year-old me): boring.

Corey Carrier as Young-Young Indy
The series began its run on ABC in March of 1992 with Young Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jackal, a two-hour telefilm that set the tone and format the subsequent series would follow. We start in the (then) present day, where some young whipper-snapper does something or other that draws the attention of Indiana Jones, now a nonagenarian played by George Hall, who proceeds to regale said whipper-snapper with an appropriately-applicable story from his childhood that also serves to fill in the gaps in his personal chronology for those of us in the audience.

With two different actors playing Young Indy, Corey Carrier for all the pre-teen adventures, and Sean Patrick Flanery there to pick up the baton from the River Phoenix/Last Crusade version, my clearest memory of watching the show as a kid is that whenever there was a Carrier episode, I'd tune out, as that was a guaranteed snoozer. I just wasn't interested in seeing an Indiana Jones who was even younger than me. I wasn't the only one who felt this way, clearly, as he'd only appear in seven eps before being phased out. This also wouldn't be the last time Lucas would take one of his  iconic characters and de-age him into an annoying kid.

Sean Patrick Flanery as post-adolescent Young Indy
While the non-Carrier installments still lacked the pacing and excitement of the films, they did have a compelling and likable leading man in Flanery, who took us through Indy's late teens into his eventual service in World War I and his college years, and who convincingly made us believe he would eventually grow into Harrison Ford. As it turns out, while quite a few people tuned in initially thanks to the promise of George Lucas bringing one of his signature creations to the small screen, they eventually tuned back out when they realized a lot of the whiz-bang that made the movies so memorable was sadly absent. 

Young Indiana Jones had a brief six-episode first season in Spring of '92, and twenty-four second season installments that were spaced out over '92/'93. In a bid to goose the viewership a little bit when ABC moved the show to the Saturday night death slot, the producers roped in Harrison Ford (who'd previously turned the series down citing his film commitments) to make a cameo in the "Old Indy" wraparound for a special TV-movie entitled Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues. Check out a compilation of Ford's appearance below: 

FYI, the reason he's sporting that beard is that this segment was filmed during downtime on early filming of The Fugitive, so he was unable to shave it. Unfortunately, Ford's presence in the episode only served to represent and highlight everything the rest of the show had been missing until then. The subsequent flashback to Indy's tangle with gangsters in old Chicago, along with his first encounter with jazz music, which was a perfectly adequate adventure when taken on its own, could't help but seem disappointing when we were really just biding our time waiting to see Ford again.

While they tried like heck to imbue his appearance with as much of that old movie magic as possible (even dusting off the ol' John Williams theme), even Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones didn't do much to move the needle ratings-wise. Young Indiana Jones was quietly cancelled after its remaining second season eps were burned off by ABC in summer of '93. However, a "third season" was commissioned by the now-defunct Family Channel in the form of four TV movies starring Flanery (which brought back Carrier for an installment, but ditched the George Hall wraparounds altogether). These aired between 1994 and 1996, and that was it.

George Hall as Old Indy
Following the show's cancellation and the end of the TV movies, Lucas had the entire series re-edited into feature-length installments laid out in chronological order rather than the piecemeal approach of the weekly. As a result, all the "Old Indy" segments with Hall (who passed away in '01) were dropped entirely. Per usual with Lucas, he just couldn't leave well enough alone, and sadly these edited movies under the umbrella title The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones are now the only remaining way to officially see this series in its original form (and we wouldn't see Old Indy again until 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

Personally, I'm of two minds on the decision to excise poor Old Indy from the Chronicles. On the one hand, even as a little kid -- especially as a little kid -- I wasn't comfortable seeing our beloved adventures hero reduced to a Grampa Simpson-esque coot no one listens to and who rambles about past exploits. On the other hand, that's the show they made, and it's a shame we don't get to see it as it aired, warts and all. However, some enterprising souls on the web have taken the opportunity to preserve those framing sequences, many of which were kind of important in paying off the episodes, and thrown them online. To wit, check out the first installment of "The Old Indiana Jones Chronicles."

(By the way, here's a depressing thought: Harrison Ford himself is now just five years younger than Hall was when he filmed his bits for the show. Yikes.)


Anonymous said...

I remember watching that show as a kid, with anticipation, only to be let down by how lame it was. That show was TERRIBLE. As you said, all that made the movies great was gone!

Flannery's major expression is this puzzled gaze into the distance. He didn't act or look like Indy at all. I felt like the whole series was a huge disappointment, and can't believe it even made it past one season. It just seems like a vanity project on Lucas's part. Really, really awful...

Still, it does give some insight into Lucas's bizarre completionist / editorital tendencies. Thanks for the write-up!

Anonymous said...

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles is the best show, ever ... period. It inspired my love of travel and adventure. Most importantly it enriched my love of the Indiana Jones character, all thanks to Flanery's portrayal of the iconic character. It is a shame that they were not able to finish making the slated episodes that would tie the TV show to the first movie.

Anonymous said...

Are you talking about the same show I am? Young Indiana Jones was BORING, man. It was boring as hell.

Actually, I take that back. Hell is probably more interesting. And less painful.

Anonymous said...

Yes, he is talking about the same show as you do. I definetely agree with the second poster that The Young Indiana Jones was the best TV series of all time with epic, rich and complex soundtrack. First poster is obviously unaware that many people respect the series. My personal opinion is that this was the best Lucas' project of his career.