As we prepare for the next Indiana Jones spanquel, I want to talk about a lost gem from the 90s. And one of George Lucas’ first forays into television. Long before we had The Mandalorian, there was The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-96). It starred Sean Patrick Flannery and Corey Carrier and ran for two seasons, plus four made-for-TV movies.
After the release of Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade (1989), which contained a prologue of Young Indy in 1912 (portrayed by the perfectly cast, if slightly tall, River Phoenix), Lucas got the truly brilliant idea to make a Young Indiana Jones TV series. Which debuted on ABC (long before it was purchased by Disney) a few years later.
Lucas was WAY ahead of his time in pushing the boundaries of what could be done on television. Back then, most shows were only shot on soundstages. Lucas opted instead to shoot on location all over the world, from Europe to Africa and the Middle East. It was a very expensive show to produce, and truly groundbreaking. The idea was to make a show that was very cinematic. Sadly, he didn’t have the forethought to film it in widescreen. It still looks good on modern televisions except for the old school 4:3 ratio.
Lucas wanted to make a show that was both entertaining and educational. With extra emphasis on the educational part. In each episode, as Young Indy travels the world, he encounters numerous historical figures*. The hope was that kids would learn a bit about these people and the events that shaped our world.
*After reading through the list of unproduced episodes, I’m still bummed that Lucas never planned one that had Indy meeting young Walt Disney in Paris around WWI, when much of the show takes place. Lucas was a big Disney fan and little George actually went to Disneyland with his family on the second day it opened.
Unfortunately, Lucas also made a couple of key mistakes. Some of which he attempted to fix. But with mixed success.
Back in the early 90s, everyone knew the tagline, “If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones.” The original films were inspired by the cliffhanger serials of the 1940s. And while the show was big on education, it started out lacking in adventure.
This is because the show had two main leads (technically three), and the episodes alternated between them: Corey Carrier played Indy at age 10, and the brilliantly cast (who knew they could find TWO young Harrison Fords?) Sean Patrick Flannery played 16-year-old Indy. All of these episodes were bookended by scenes of 90-year-old Indy (George Hall, with glasses and an eyepatch) running into some random kids and reminiscing about his life back in the day.
Because of the two main leads, the show jumped back and forth in time. It was basically an anthology, with a new supporting cast every week (more on that in a minute). Some of whom would show up again in later episodes (especially Indy’s WWI sidekick, Remy). The episode titles indicated the date and location (e.g. “London, May 1916”). You could get a follow-up episode weeks, or even months, later. Now this is not exactly a bad thing, but may have been confusing to 1990s audiences for whom binge-watching hadn’t yet been invented. Which is likely why the show was later re-packaged in chronological order (more on that in a minute, too).
While the show was entertaining and had amazing locations, it was also short on adventure. It quickly became obvious that audiences weren’t as interested in 10-year-old Indy. Teenage Indy, however, could do action scenes, romance the ladies, and was much more like the adult Indy. Especially since many of his episodes took place during World War I.
For Indy fans, there was also the expectation that we’d see younger versions of familiar characters: Marion Ravenwood and her father, Abner, plus Brody and even Belloq. And while those episodes were planned, the series ended before they could be produced.
One big plus, though it wouldn’t be recognized until years later, was the supporting cast, which includes a lot of big names. They just weren’t that big at the time. Daniel Craig, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson), Elizabeth Hurley, Anne Heche, Kevin McNally (Gibbs in Pirates), Jeffrey Wright, and many other recognizable faces appear throughout the series (shades of Lucas’ American Graffiti, 1973, after which the whole cast became successful).
Want to know who would win in a fight between Indiana Jones and James Bond? Just watch S2 E21, “Palestine, October 1917” (aka E15, “Daredevils of the Desert”). Future Oscar-winner Catherine Zeta-Jones also stars in this episode.
Despite moving the focus to teenage Indy, the ratings still floundered. So in Season 2, Harrison Ford was actually brought in to do one of the bookends featuring 50-year-old Indy. This episode, Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues (1993), was actually two episodes put together, and the first to have an Indiana Jones-sounding title.
Despite the appearance of Harrison Ford, the series was still cancelled after Season 2. But that wasn’t the end of Young Indy. Lucas moved the project to The Family Channel (now Freeform) and produced four made-for-TV movies, which are among the best in the series. Three of these are more action-filled and have Indy-sounding titles. My favorite is Young Indiana Jones and the Hollywood Follies (1994).
Since then, the show has been re-packaged a couple of times (just like the Star Wars Special Editions). First as 22 TV movies told in chronological order and with new titles. Which is now the only version available. Then came a VHS release, and finally a three-box DVD set. The bookends with Old Indy were dropped completely. The DVD set contains tons of supporting educational materials, which is a nice addition, and harkens back to Lucas’ original intent.
There were also a handful of Young Indiana Jones paperbacks.
Since they now own most of the parties involved (ABC and LucasFilm, minus Paramount), I’m really hoping that Disney can add this show to Disney Plus. Especially when they release Indy 5 (2023). I would love for this show to finally find its audience. It’s just a shame, though, that it’s not available in its original format (Star Wars trilogy, anyone?).
But if you want to watch them right now, you can find 21 of the movies (minus Mystery of the Blues, for some reason) on Paramount Plus. Or grab the DVD sets.
It’s no lost ark, mind you, but definitely a treasure worth uncovering!