George Lucas, the filmmaker who gave us Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies, has a noble purpose in turning to TV to present the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: As creator and executive producer, Lucas wants to inspire millions of youthful minds to become passionately curious about history. In this new series’ two-hour introduction, a 9-year-old version of Indiana Jones (Corey Carrier) travels to Egypt in 1908 and searches for a stolen mummy with T.E. Lawrence (Joseph Bennett) — that’s right, Lawrence of Arabia himself, who urges our little hero to learn foreign languages (”It’s the key that unlocks everything!”).
Later in this TV movie, a teenage Indy (played by Sean Patrick Flanery) in 1916 hitches a ride down to Mexico and meets Pancho Villa (Mike Moroff), who is busy trying to foment a rebellion against the U.S. ”Go back to your fat, rich life!” Villa says with a sneer to tall, lean Indy. Young Jones, however, fired up by what he’s heard of Villa’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, shouts, ”But I want to join you and fight for the revolution!” Pretty soon Jones is on horseback, riding with Villa’s gang, his eyes popping as the Mexicans whip out their pistols and start shooting at a U.S. Army brigade led by General George ”Blackjack” Pershing (Peter Marlinker).
Where an Indiana Jones movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark was supposed to be a rollicking lark that just happened to use Nazis as its villains, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles is a series of history lessons. ”It’s not an action-adventure series like the features are,” Lucas said recently. ”It’s basically a coming-of-age story…an intellectual coming-of-age.” In other words, Chronicles is the biggest educational show PBS never had the money to make.
The strengths and weaknesses of Lucas’ project are neatly contained in this introductory edition (after this week, hour-long episodes will run on Wednesdays at 9 p.m.). The series is organized around the reminiscences of a 93-year-old Indy, played by George Hall; he tells stories of his youth with wheezy voice-over narration. In the Egyptian half of the series debut, directed by Jim O’Brien (The Jewel in the Crown), 9-year-old Jones is nearly insufferable (”Gee, it must have been great to be a pharoah!”), and the high point of the segment occurs when the boy grills Lawrence on what happens when people die. ”Your soul goes to heaven, right?” the kid asks. ”That’s the Christian belief; other people have other ideas,” Lawrence says crisply, and he proceeds to give Jones the lowdown on Muslim and Hindu theories of death. It’s pedantic and slow, sure, but oh, if the conservative watchdog groups ever get wind of this: Imagine, humanist philosophy on prime-time television!
Much juicier is Indy’s temporary defection to Pancho Villa’s crusade in the second hour, directed by Carl Schultz (Careful, He Might Hear You). (The two sections are tied together in a subtle way — quite by accident, Indiana solves a small mystery in Mexico that began years before, during his Egyptian adventure.) There’s more gunplay in this section than has been seen on TV in a long time, as well as a thrillingly anarchic scene in which Villa and his men loot publisher William Randolph Hearst’s south-of-the-border palatial retreat (”All these riches, and he doesn’t even live here!”). There’s also a startling, fictional moment when future general George S. Patton goes into a bar, downs a shot of whiskey, and shoots three Mexicans dead just because they might be sympathetic to Villa. Teleplay author Jonathan Hales, working from a story by Lucas, is careful to throw in a scene in which a wise-but-poor Mexican peasant tells teen Indy, ”Revolutions come and go, along with their leaders — and they all steal your chickens” (that is to say, don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters).
But the portrayals of all these historical figures are provocative only if you know who they are to begin with, which is why I think Chronicles is a beautifully produced show based on a faulty premise. Lucas has set out to make history so vivid and exciting that kids will be racing to their history books to find out more. Without prior knowledge of T.E. Lawrence, however, the character in Chronicles is a pretentious drag; similarly, without a context, Pancho Villa is just an anarchic vulgarian — Abbie Hoffman in a sombrero. Kids will probably spend more time searching out one of those cool fedoras that teen Indy wears than looking up Lawrence and Villa in an encyclopedia.
An ABC promotional tape containing snippets of future episodes makes Chronicles look like a comic-book version of Steve Allen’s old Meeting of Minds show: Jones encounters ”the eccentric genius of Picasso” (”Indy, it’s good to see you!” crows paintin’ Pablo); the lad goes on safari with Teddy Roosevelt (”No more killing, no more!” shouts Indy, knocking a hunting rifle out of the President’s hands). And then, of course, there’s the Russian Revolution: ”I was there,” old Jones says, ”working for French intelligence!” Sure you were, Indy. I’m already imagining the promised episode in which our hero ”matches wits” with Sigmund Freud (”Do you realize the implications uff zat bullwhip you’re carrying, Master Jones?”).
The acting in Chronicles is solid, with Flanery particularly good in what is written as just a classy bland-hunk role. Lucas has also lined up impressive directors to oversee future shows, including Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) and Lonesome Dove’s Simon Wincer. The first thing all this heavy-duty talent should concentrate on is turning young Jones into something more than a time-tripping name-dropper; otherwise, viewers will begin to think of Chronicles as a prime-time temple of doom. B-