The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones 2.03: “Phantom Train of Doom”

Currently, I’ve been rewatching and blogging on The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, continuing last week with the ninth chapter, “Demons of Deception”. Before proceeding with the next chapter, here are a few things you should know, if you haven’t read the earlier post:

  • You might have noticed that I referred to this show as The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones instead of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and this is why: When the show originally aired, it was called The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and would bounce week-to-week from stories of Young Indy as a 10-year-old to stories of him from the ages of 18 to his early 20s. After it was canceled, Lucas decided to recut all of the episodes into 22 90-minute-long films intended for home video, and retitled it The Adventures of… All of the stories were now placed into chronological order. In some cases, this even meant reediting pieces of certain episodes into other episodes.
  • While seeing the story in chronological order is worthwhile, the decision to divide them into 90-minute installments can feel strange if you don’t realize that each “episode” is really made up of two distinct episodes that often have little to do with each other. You have to just remind yourself that they weren’t originally meant to be viewed in this format and instead think of them as separate entities.
  • And so to make things easier, in these posts, I’ll be listing the new episode title, and then breaking it down into its component pieces.
  • If you want to rewatch along with me, the series is on Netflix!

2.03: “Phantom Train of Doom” Original airdate: June 5, 1993

"Phantom Train of Doom"

“Phantom Train of Doom”

Unlike all preceding installments of The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, this 90-minute episode is, for all intents and purposes, identical to the version that originally aired as part of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. In every other case, each 45-minute half has been its own distinct story, whereas “Phantom Train of Doom” is basically a single piece. It goes through different focuses and movements over the course of its run, but in many ways, it’s the closest any Young Indiana Jones story has come to being a full-on spiritual predecessor to the Indiana Jones films, from start to finish.

To wit, this African-set episode is loaded from top to bottom with increasingly imaginative action sequences that include suspense and comedy in equal measure, and in which Indy and the other good guys get the upper hand, then lose it, then gain it again, then lose it, and so on and so forth within moments of each other, due to a mixture of luck, quick thinking, and twists of fate. Still being a virtual kid at this point, Indy isn’t yet as suave or competent at this whole adventure thing as he will be, but he’s getting there. The situations range from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again, and most importantly, involve fighting German baddies. There are punches thrown and explosions and fights on moving trains and crazy stunts. In short: Indiana Jones.

While it would be difficult to remember all of the many wonderfully bonkers things that happen in this episode, they include:

  • Indy and Remy getting hopelessly lost in Africa numerous times by repeatedly getting on numerous wrong trains.
  • Indy finding himself practically kidnapped by a squadron of old men, who make him go on missions with them.
  • A train, loaded with some serious weaponry that the Germans have hidden inside a fake mountain with hidden doors that are mechanized to swing open when the train exits, in order to give the illusion that it is disappearing off the face of the earth.
  • An awesome shoot-out on said train.
  • After disconnecting the two halves of the train, an old Texan lassoing a rope from one to the next so that one of his elderly companions can tight-rope walk to safety, as both parts of the train continue to chug down the track and people shoot at one another the whole time.
  • Indy, upon realizing that they haven’t destroyed the weapon they were trying to, driving the front half of the train in reverse so they can steal the entire back half.
  • An old man exploding the entire train from afar thanks to one expert shot.
  • Indy and Remy capturing a German colonel and escaping in a hot-air balloon…completely by accident and with no idea of how to control it or navigate.
  • Indy accidentally shooting holes in said hot air balloon, while trying to show off.
  • The balloon crash landing right in the midst of a pride of seemingly hungry lions.
  • Indy, Remy, and the colonel being chased by a group of armed tribesmen with spears, reminiscent of the opening sequence of Raiders.

After a number of episodes that focus on the grim realities of the World War I battlefield, this one is an immense relief and feels truly earned. As viewers, we need some comic relief at this point and while it may ultimately amount to a string of silly capers, it is an immensely fun 90 minutes of television, with expertly conceived and directed action sequences that can easily take their place among the best of the Indiana Jones films. While I understand why every episode couldn’t be like this–and I actually admire the show for that, for not simply trying to do a mini-Indiana Jones film each week, which might have been entertaining but would likely have lacked the genuine depth the series demonstrated on a regular basis–it’s appreciated, particularly at this particularly dark juncture in the storytelling. In its original run, however, this was one of the last stories to air, and I kind of wonder whether they might have been wiser to have done it earlier, as it really does feel like a nice intermission from the bleakness of the immediately preceding episodes that, at the same time, never makes light of the war or the situation.

As with a number of the previous “older” Young Indy adventures, this one also nicely links to his earlier adventures, in that one of the old men is Selous, one of the master hunters who Indy met as a young boy when he was on the expedition with Teddy Roosevelt. And although at first, Indy scoffs at the idea of men their age being able to fight and have any sort of impact, over the course of their adventures, he comes to learn that they are just as tough and competent as ever–that this old guy is still just as strong a marksman as he was when Indy was a boy–a lesson that he will surely take to heart himself in the future. One can’t imagine that Indy would ever settle down himself. One can picture him still chasing down historical treasures when he’s old and gray.

Indy even learns from his elders in the form of Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German colonel who he captures and who treats him like a child throughout that entire misadventure, criticizing his technique and showing him up throughout, repeatedly, even though Indy, as his captor, should theoretically have the upper-hand. Indy comments that he might as well be holding his dad as a prisoner, and it’s funny how accurate this is. Von Lettow-Vorbeck is like a comedically exaggerated Henry, Sr., constantly giving Indy unwanted advice and being condescending to him. Although he remains off-screen, Henry Sr.’s shadow continues to loom large over his son’s life.

Interestingly, however, the colonel and he start to strike up a strange sort of…not quite friendship, but at least mutual respect for one another, and in the end, Indy frees him, in exchange for Von Lettow-Vorbeck letting him leave with his life. The older man even gives Indy his compass, so he can find his way back–a nice little acknowledgment that, despite their vastly different backgrounds and technically being enemies, the two are both people who have been through a great deal of mayhem together in a short amount of time. Indy seems to remind the man of the son he might have had, just as he reminds Indy of his dad, and for a few brief moments, there’s something rather sweet about this brief shared moment of understanding, regardless of what side each fights on.

There is also a great, kickass female character in the form of another historical figure, Margaret Trappe, known for being a fantastic hunter and pilot, who, despite being temporarily captured by the group of old men, never loses her defiance for a moment, and in the end, is the one to nearly bring down Indy and Remy. Although women aren’t always as prominent on Young Indiana Jones as they could have been, the series has a history of showcasing strong female characters, particularly some historical ones who otherwise are not well-remembered today, and this is a great example of that.

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Next: “Oganga, the Giver and Taker of Life”

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Author: Robert Berg

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