Review by KC Carlson
Former killer robot and spunky gal-pal make good!
The Zeta Project is one of the lesser-known WB Animation/DC Comics projects. Lead character Zeta was spun off from a second season episode of Batman Beyond. The series first aired on Kids’ WB beginning in 2001 and ran – sporadically – for two seasons. It initially struggled to find an audience, but since then it has become a worldwide cult classic.
As introduced in the Batman Beyond episode “Zeta” (included as a bonus on this set), the humanoid robot Zeta is initially shown to be a shape-shifting synthoid on the run from the NSA (National Security Agency). The NSA is headed by the obsessed Agent Bennett, who claims that Zeta is programmed for killing and is currently “off-line”. Terry McGinnis (the future Batman) investigates further, only to discover that Bennett is correct, but he is not telling the whole story. Infiltration Unit Zeta, programmed by the NSA to carry out covert assassinations, has discovered that one of his intended targets is actually innocent, somehow throwing the robot into some sort of existential crisis and altering Zeta’s programming so that he no longer wants to kill. (Although since this is a kids’ cartoon, when he restates it, it’s in terms of “destroy no more”.)
In a powerful scene, Zeta is shown throwing away all of his guns and weapons, abandoning his killing mission and going rogue. Terry witnesses all this and helps Zeta escape from the NSA. But Zeta is now on the run, seeking a new, peaceful life.
According to creator Robert Goodman, Zeta was originally planned to be killed at the end of the Batman Beyond episode. Instead, the studio thought the character showed some promise, and he was saved to star in his own ongoing series. Both Zeta and Agent Bennett would appear in the new series, after being re-designed (Zeta doesn’t really have a head in the BB episode!) and re-voiced. And some new supporting characters would also be needed.
It could have been a train wreck. Kids’ WB wanted a show that not only skewed younger than the traditional sci-fi adventure show, they also wanted a female-friendly quotient added to attract more girl viewers. Granted, there are a couple of cringe-worthy episodes here with kid-friendly elements ramped-up, colors a bit brighter than they need to be, and the animation and design is not in the same league as most other WB/DC animated shows. But fortune (and probably a lot of hard work) shone over this little show-that-could and led to the creation of a couple of utterly charming and intriguing characters.
For the new show, Zeta would be voiced by Diedrich Bader, probably best known as Oswald in the long-running Drew Carey Show sitcom. Currently the voice of Batman on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Bader is a good choice. He gives the peace-loving robot a very natural soft-spoken voice, but he can also do determined, as well as robotic, when called upon. Zeta gets a new, fairly traditional robot head, one with a rudimentary mouth and some funky eyes (which don’t always look good, depending on the animation), so that the now emotional robot can, uh… emote. Good thinking here! My favorite Zeta character bit is discovering that the robot snores when he is powered down.
In the most brilliant move of the series, the creators decided to pair Zeta with a spunky, sarcastic, but also determined and loyal teenage girl, Ro Rowan. Ro is a foster child, on-the-run and living on the streets when we first meet her, and her mysterious (because she wants it that way) past forms one of the ongoing core backstories of the show. Ro, brilliantly voiced by Julie Nathanson (lots of voice work and also 5 episodes of the original 90210), quickly becomes the heart of the series.
When Zeta and Ro first meet (in “The Accomplice,” the first and most essential episode of the show), they take turns saving each other, and both come to realize that they work very effectively as a team. Ro quickly recognizes that Zeta can’t keep walking around looking like a robot, so she helps him come up with a human disguise, a hunky older boy/younger man construct that Ro calls “Zee.” Zee is frequently assumed to be Ro’s older brother by strangers, but in reality Ro assumes an “older sister” role as her street smarts trump Zee’s naivete about the world around him.
It’s unspoken in the series itself, but it’s fairly obvious that Zee is a father figure for the family-less Ro. It appears that some fans wish for some kind of romantic relationship between the two, but that would be difficult for several reasons (the obvious one being this is a kids’ show). Ro is apparently only 15 years old (although she frequently seems and acts older) and Zee is, of course, a former killer robot. The multiple levels of character depth (at least as perceived by fans) are unique to most animated shows of this type, and that’s probably the major factor accounting for its cult status. There is definitely some kind of chemistry between the two characters which helps drive the show into being more than your run-of-the mill animated sci-fi adventure show.
The regular cast is rounded off with the returning (and still obsessed) NSA Agent Bennett, now voiced by Kurtwood Smith (Red from That 70s Show). Assisting him in the ongoing chase are junior NSA agents West – a klutzy, inept agent who accidentally sabotages about half the missions he’s involved in – and Agent Lee, who later discovers Zeta’s secret and becomes conflicted in her mission to capture him. West is voiced by Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor on Smallville and the Flash on the animated Justice League). Lee’s voice is provided by Lauren Tom, who, in one of the bonus features for Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder, we discover is single-handedly responsible for the creation and production of Futurama. (She’s also done about a bazillon voices for other cartoons and also played Mai on Men in Trees.)
In the course of the first season (12 episodes, all included here), Zeta and Ro encounter
- Bucky, the annoying boy genius who’s invented the Ultimate Remote
- Infiltration Unit 7, the newest generation of Zeta-like robots – only stronger, with more weapons and still liking to kill people
- a commune of space hippies (just like Star Trek!)
- Krick, a human bounty hunter who attacks Zeta and Ro in an abandoned candy factory staffed by still-functioning Koala robots (would I make this up?)
- and Zeta discovers the existence of Dr. Eli Selig, the chief programmer who can prove Zeta’s innocence, who becomes the MacGuffin for the entire series and provides the goal for the end of Zeta’s quest.
“The Next Gen” and “Shadows” are two important Zeta-centric episodes, the latter also being another cross-over with Batman Beyond. Two key episodes, “Hicksburg” and “Ro’s Reunion”, provide important information about Ro’s family background. “Ro’s Reunion” was reportedly not shown in America during the show’s initial run.
There’s also a second bonus Batman Beyond episode which guest stars Zeta, Ro, and the NSA team. “Countdown” is unique in that it is the last episode of Batman Beyond produced, and it is also linked to the Zeta Project episode “Shadows”, which originally aired the the same day on Kids’ WB. “Shadows” was effectively the first in a series of post-Batman Beyond appearances for the character, who also appeared in episodes of Static Shock and Justice League as well as the film Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.
There’s also a great Special Feature documentary “The Making of Zeta” included with interviews with many of the creators and voice talents from the series. Not mentioned in the doc is the fact that the series was slightly re-tooled for the the second season, including more detailed animation, darker colors, and another minor re-design for Zeta. Creator Robert Goodman also indicated an upgrade storywise – “more action, more suspense, higher stakes.” I hope that DVD sales are strong enough for this very entertaining set for Season Two to quickly follow. These characters have worked their way into my brain (as well as my heart) and I’m anxious to see this series continue.
(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)