When George Lucas launched The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles on ABC in 1992, it didn’t click like the Indy feature films that were a huge 1980s box office force. The hour-long series tried to gene-splice early-20th-century history lessons into a boy’s-adventure milieu, and it worked only fitfully as entertainment. Indy — portrayed as both a tiresomely headstrong kid (Corey Carrier), circa 1908-10, and a charming teen (Sean Patrick Flanery) from 1916 to 1920 — became a freakishly well-connected Zelig-cum-Candide. He chatted up great politicians, artists, scientists, and philosophers wherever he went. (Sample pileup: In Paris, prepubescent Indy meets teenage Norman Rockwell, who takes him to a café where Pablo Picasso and Edgar Degas hang out. Voilà!
While some of this was grand, dorky fun — and certainly lavishly visualized — audiences wondered, Why isn’t there more whip cracking and less lecturing? Does this golly-gee Carrier kid really grow up to be Harrison Ford? Never a ratings champ, Chronicles lasted less than two seasons, then managed a truncated season 3 on cable’s Family Channel. In the mid-1990s, Lucas had the shows reedited. He renamed them The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, excised the creaky intros by ”Old Indy” (a 93-year-old narrator), inserted new bridging material, and configured it all chronologically into 22 ninety-minute telefilms. You might have spotted them on cable or on VHS (they were released in 1999) — and now they’re complete on DVD in three massive collections, with Vol. 3: The Years of Change arriving just in time to cap the cross-promotion of Indiana Jones and the Kindgom of the Crystal Skull, in theaters May 22. (Vol. 1: The Early Years and Vol. 2: The War Years came out in late 2007.)
The big news of the DVD sets is the huge assortment of original documentaries — 94 of them over the three volumes — that fill in the details on the VIPs Indiana is forever meeting. Some Vol. 3 examples: In ”The Winds of Change,” Indy attends his pal Paul Robeson’s valedictory speech; an accompanying profile of the actor-singer-activist features James Earl Jones, among others, recounting the tragic arc of Robeson’s later life. ”Hollywood Follies” has Indy working with filmmaker John Ford, and in a companion piece, experts like Martin Scorsese parse Ford’s career. These background dossiers — more than 40 hours’ worth — are copiously researched and consistently engrossing, with lots of academics and authors in the talking-heads mix.
The shows themselves remain wildly uneven. Vol. 1, a European grand tour with Indy largely still in short pants, can get tedious, while much of Vol. 3, which immerses Indy in popular culture — jazz, Broadway, the movies — veers way off the world-events beat. The strongest is Vol. 2, charting Indy’s sad, sobering-life-lessons education as a soldier and spy in Europe during World War I. No temples here. Plenty of doom. Vol. 3: B; Vol. 1: B-; Vol. 2: B+