Warner Bros. (2001), Warner Home Video (March 17, 2009), 2 discs, 253 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Surround Stereo, Not Rated, Retail: $26.98
A fugitive robot finds an ally in a teenage girl, as he attempts to prove his good intentions while evading government forces.
The Sweatbox Review:
Batman Beyond was already something of a hit for Kids WB in the early 21st century when creative types were making pitches for new shows. Bob Goodman had already created a scenario for Batman Beyond that suited a series format perfectly. He had scripted an episode called Zeta, about a military killing robot that had decided he didn’t wish to kill anymore. Goodman’s initial inclination had been to destroy the robot at the end of the story, but fortunately this idea was nixed, as it was felt that Batman Beyond needed fewer sad endings. The change was fortuitous, as Goodman was nicely able to carry the concept over to a series pitch that was immediately approved.
The parallels with the classic 1960s hit The Fugitive were obvious, but the new cartoon would have the benefit of being set in the same future as Batman Beyond, with the cool factor of having a mechanical being as the object of pursuit. Decades after The Fugitive’s success, no one could deny that the premise still held large appeal. As revealed in BB’s Zeta episode, Zeta is an “infiltration unit” being chased by a team of government agents led by Agent Bennett— a man who sincerely believes that Zeta is a threat. He thinks this because Zeta changed from assassin to pacifist after going after terrorists, and Bennett thinks that the terrorists reprogrammed him.
In order to convince Bennett that he is capable of independent thought and developing new motivations, Zeta decides that he must find the man who originally programmed him, an elusive scientist named Dr. Selig. As Zeta is actually quite naïve in the ways of the world, he takes on a partner, a teenage runaway named Ro. Ro helps him to understand human customs and language, and though her own motivation has much to do with Zeta’s unlimited charge card, she does genuinely want to see him succeed. Another factor that helps Zeta is his ability to project a personal hologram that essentially allows him to appear as any person he chooses.
The show was originally planned to be darker, but a Kids WB dictate meant that it had to be more child-friendly. It would have to eschew the dark nighttime scenes of Batman Beyond, and there had to be significant humor and happy endings. The creative people switched gears, and came up with a show that looked bright and humorous, but also featured complex themes regarding the nature of man and the philosophy of mechanical souls. So, while Kids WB was pleased with the younger-skewing demographics, the creators still managed to keep the essential depth of the show intact.
Still, while the scripts did stay serious in theme, there is no doubting that much of the appeal of the show is in its humor. Ro is particularly well scripted, utilizing a smart mix of teenage snark and genuine wit to deal with life’s challenges. She is nicely played by Julie Nathanson, who sounds like a teen without sounding like she’s trying to sound like a teen. The true comedy relief, though, comes from Agent West, the youngest member of Agent Bennett’s team, and the most prone to making mistakes. This redheaded young man ties in nicely with the DC Animated Universe, as he is a clear descendent of the Justice League’s Flash, Wally West. If there was any doubt of this intent, it evaporates when you realize that Agent West is voiced by Michael Rosenbaum, who also voiced The Flash on Justice League. Zeta, by the way, is calmly played by Diedrich Bader, who uses adept comic timing to make up for the fact that he has the near-thankless job of issuing his lines with practically no emotion.
The character designs, except for Zeta, are simple and bordering on bland, as per the Batman Beyond aesthetic. At least this simplicity leads to ease of animation, and the show piles on plenty of strong animation when the action kicks into gear. With its charming blend of humor, conflict, and brains, The Zeta Project manages to be appealing to viewers young and old, not to mention both male and female.
The Accomplice – Zeta meets Ro, who despite her own judgement ends up helping Zeta and joining him on his quest to prove himself.
His Maker’s Name – Now armed with some knowledge of his creators, Zeta and Ro track down one of the members of the team that created him. Unfortunately, Bennett reaches him first.
Remote Control – Zeta and Ro follow the trail of Dr. Selig to an old employer. The trail has gone cold, but Zeta finds himself taken over by a young electronics wizard named Bucky.
Change Of Heart – Dr. Selig is speaking at a science center, but before they can reach him, Zeta and Ro have to evade guards and end up having to prevent a little girl’s death. We get the first inklings here of Ro’s feelings towards her own family.
The Next Gen – Bucky turns up again, as Zeta and Ro try to prevent another infiltration unit (IU7) from carrying out his killing mission.
West Bound – Agent West unusually finds himself in the right place when he is trapped alongside Zeta and Ro on a high-speed hover-train.
Hicksburg – Zeta takes on the appearance of a celebrity while the pair visit a town where Ro used to live with foster parents. Here, she gets a clue about a real family member.
Shadows – IU7 takes on Zeta at a shopping center, and Batman intervenes due to mistakenly thinking that Zeta has returned to his killing ways.
Crime Waves – Zeta and Ro must solve a kidnapping, as they are the prime suspects.
Taffy Time – Zeta is trapped in a candy factory by a bounty hunter, and Agent Lee shows more reservations about her team’s mission.
Kid Genius – Bucky asks for Zeta and Ro’s help to save his parents, who have been subjected to de-aging.
Ro’s Reunion – Ro is offered the chance to meet her brother on a reunion TV show, but knows that this would expose herself to capture by Agent Bennett.
Is This Thing Loaded?
In The Making Of Zeta: How The Character And The Series Evolved (16:07) show creator Bob Goodman, executive producer Alan Burnett, voice actor Julie Nathanson (Ro) and others discuss the show’s beginnings as a non-descript Batman Beyond episode and how it ended up going to series. Lots of artwork is shown, and for its length, the featurette does a very nice job of letting us know most of what we would care to know about The Zeta Project. Oddly, the main exception is the voice of Zeta— there is absolutely no mention of Diedrich Bader! I thought that strange, particularly since he is currently employed by Warner Bros. Animation as the voice of Batman in Batman: The Brave And The Bold.
Disc One also houses a nice set of Trailers: Batman: The Brave And The Bold (our first confirmation of a pending DVD release), the Saturday Morning Cartoons collections, Wonder Woman, The Real Adventures Of Jonny Quest, and Ben 10 Alien Force.
On the second disc, Warner has made the handy addition of including the Two Batman Beyond Series Episodes Featuring Zeta. Of course, the first of these, Zeta, should really be the first thing watched on the set, as this episode introduced the character and the concept for the show before the creators even knew it was going to be a series. The other episode is Countdown, the final episode of Batman Beyond that went into production; it aired in conjunction with the Batman appearance on The Zeta Project, Shadows.
Like the recent Real Adventures Of Jonny Quest set, this one comes in a standard keepcase with tray, and it slides into an identical but embossed slipcase. There is no insert, and there is no chapter listing except on the disc menus.
Ink And Paint:
The materials used for this release appear pristine, and may very well come from a digital source, as there are no physical artifacts to be seen. Compression work is near perfect, with only a tiny amount of shimmering during pans.
The stereo sound is on par with other Warner Animation Saturday morning shows. As with the superhero shows, a 5.1 mix could be superb, but having the audio in stereo suits the material just fine. There are no other language tracks, but there are English and French subtitles.
While The Zeta Project may not be an all-time classic, it is an entertaining show that is ideal for kids and has enough substance (and certainly humor) to keep adults interested. The second season apparently succumbed to getting a little darker, so I’ll be curious to see it when it makes it to DVD.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?