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"The Zeta Project": Not Quite Batman, But Still in a League of Its Own

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The Zeta Project is a Batman Beyond spinoff, but you would never guess that from watching the show itself. Aside from a few shared futuristic elements, it has virtually nothing thematically in common with Batman. In fact, it’s the only “DC Universe” cartoon not based on a previously existing comic book. The show is very different from anything else in the DCAU, but it still works.

If you have reservations about dropping $20 (or less) on this series, I understand. It came out, after all, during a period of transition at Kids WB, when the network was moving away from adult-friendly, intelligent programs and toward crud like Max Steel and the patched-together Cardcaptor Sakura dub. According to the bonus features, the series started out in development with something closer to the feel of Batman Beyond, but its harsher elements were eliminated through Executive Meddling, leaving the finished product with brighter colors and the occasional appearance of a brainy brat named “Bucky.”

But to sell Zeta short because of its origins is to make a mistake. Despite the forces that were arrayed against it, the finished product is an entertaining show with an engaging story, and you will get your money’s worth. I hadn’t seen it in a long time, but I enjoyed it a lot more now than I did through half-awake eyes on Saturday morning.

Zeta is a government-built assassin robot that can project a hologram around himself to look like anyone. He first appeared in the Batman Beyond episode “Zeta,” where he initially appeared as a threat and had no head. Terry McGinnis soon discovered that Zeta was actually a robot with a conscience that was rejecting the orders of the real bad guy—Agent Bennett, the man determined to capture and reprogram him. Having learned a valuable anti-prejudice lesson, Batman allowed Zeta to escape. The writer of the episode, Robert Goodman, then pitched the network the idea of a spinoff centering on the robot.

So that’s how we got this. The first thing you should do is stop comparing it to Batman, because that isn’t fair. Apples and oranges. It’s not trying to be Batman in any form, nor does it resemble any other kind of the superhero-based cartoons the DC banner usually indicates. Goodman pitched it as “The Fugitive with robots,” and that’s closer to the expectations the viewer should have. This isn’t the Timmverse, it’s the Goodmanverse, which, as far as I know, consists of just this.

In the first five minutes of the series, Zeta’s run from the feds leads him to cross paths with the real star of this show, runaway orphan Rosalie Rowan, or just “Ro” to you. Ro is impossible not to love. She’s sharp, quick-witted, cute as a button and genuinely funny. If you’re a sucker for smart-mouthed blondes, Ro is like a thousand Chloe Sullivans and Veronica Marseses baked in a pie and topped with Buffy Whip. Sure, you get these characters a lot in prime time, but almost never in a cartoon, and Ro is a refreshing change of pace in that respect.

Ro and Bot get into one fix after another, running into bounty hunters, assassin-bots more powerful than Zeta, and that stupid aforementioned “Bucky” kid. Their main quest is to find Eli Selig, Zeta’s original creator, but along the way it also becomes about finding traces of Ro’s original family. If you’re only buying this for Batman, he shows up in episode eight, “Shadows.” Terry gets a sizable chunk of screentime, and you could count it as Batman Beyond Episode 52 1/2, if you felt like it.

From a grown-up’s point of view, this is a pretty nifty show, but it didn’t go over so well with kids. Zeta‘s main problem with his intended market was his lack of appeal. If you’re going to make a kid’s show about a robot, then it should be a cool robot. Zeta is many things, but cool he ain’t. He was built to destroy, but he will destroy no more, and he’s painfully inexperienced with anything else. Before Zeta met Ro, his plan for survival was to repeatedly call Bennett and explain how good he was. This would lead Bennett to his location and he’d get shot at, so he’d run away, find another phone, and call Bennett again. It’s through moments like this you realize how backward executive meddlers really got things. Batman and Batman-related things always sell. If kids like Batman, why would you think they’d really go for a peace-loving, mentally soft robot that threw away most of his weapons and greets danger with puppy dog eyes? Even more ironic is that without this same kind of meddling the show would not even have existed at all. Goodman’s original script for Batman Beyond‘s “Zeta” had the robot dying at the end, but the higher-ups started demanding “more happy endings,” and so Zeta lived, eventually to get his own show.

This is the first TV-on-DVD set I’ve ever purchased that doesn’t have anything printed on or within it that tells you what episodes are on it. There’s no insert, no reversible cover, no nothing. Extra features consist of an informative 16-minute chat with the creators and actors, some trailers that don’t count as bonus features no matter what Warner says, and the two episodes of Batman Beyond that Zeta starred in. The second was meant to tie into The Zeta Project, and it features Ro as well as Zeta’s correct head. I saw this episode back when I bought the third BB season set, but now that I’m better acquainted with the guest stars I appreciate it more. It made me wish Ro was Terry’s insider friend instead of Max. Note, though, that the Beyond episodes are missing chapter stops and subtitles.

You’ll have to hope there is a Zeta Project Volume Two release, because the thirteenth episode is not included. Warner did this because the intended Season 1 finale, “Absolute Zero,” was instead aired as the Season 2 opener. They’re thus counting it as part of Season 2, which better show up.

At one point, Ro tells Zeta “You really suck, you know that?” But he really doesn’t. This is a great show that stuck with me long after I’d finished the set. If I were the bouncer for the DC Animation Nightclub, I’d judge Zeta and Ro as cool enough to enter. Static, however, would have to first explain why he was friends with Li’l Romeo.