Animation Retro Review: The Zeta Project

If you’ve read my review of Batman Beyond (why haven’t you, go and do it) you’ll have noticed a familiar name in the title of this review. Zeta. The renegade synthoid, an infiltration unit designed to impersonate and assassinate its target, a machine being hunted by the NSA’s Agent James Bennet and who had had an encounter of his own with the Dark Knight, Terry McGinnis.

The Zeta Project is a spinoff of that sole episode of Batman Beyond “Zeta”. In the original episode it was revealed that Zeta was not so much a threat, as merely attempting to gain his freedom; which Agent Bennet neither believes nor can allow. In The Zeta Project this tale continues, with Zee (as his friends will come to call him) teams up with Rosalie Rowan, or Ro, a teenaged runaway with a shady past of her own.

Where Batman Beyond was a perfect imagining of the future of Gotham, The Zeta Project is a perfect metaphor for the struggle we all have to find ourselves, set against the backdrop of 2040s America. Hover cars, robot servants and advanced technology are all normal including some pretty unnerving news anchors and some delightfully 90s views of what mobile phones would become.

Zeta, the titular robot, only wants one thing – his freedom. While on a mission, he learned that his target (an accountant linked to a dangerous terrorist organisation) was innocent. Thus the question was asked; if he was innocent, surely they all could be. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you make robots that can think for themselves. Oh, and did I mention that as an Infiltration Unit, Zeta can alter his outward appearance, via hologram, at will?

The problem is that Bennet thinks Zeta has been reprogrammed by Brother’s Day, the aforementioned terrorist group. While Bennet knows he is searching for Dr Selig, the original creator of Infiltration Unit Zeta, the agent remains convinced that the goal is to kill, or interrogate the doctor rather than simply prove that Zeta could, in fact, be good. It doesn’t help that the NSA always seem to arrive at the worst possible time; witnessing the destruction often caused by the trouble Zee and Ro get themselves into on their road trip, and often as the result of trying to help, rather than hurt.

The growth of the relationship between Zee and Ro is really well written and wonderfully voiced. They both feel like genuine people, even the robot, who just wants to be himself and doesn’t really understand the world around him. There’s a funny moment early on, when as a response to Ro’s protests about her robot comrade infiltrating a secure compound Zee replies, “Relax. This is the part I’m good at” with a sincere charm that shows he clearly understand he isn’t very good at the rest of it.

Unlike the Batman ‘villain of the week’ format, The Zeta Project works on a more long-form arc. Much of the episodes involve Zee and Ro either fleeing from the NSA or infiltrating some location on their quest to prove Zee could, in fact, be peaceful. These episodes are interspersed with the occasional villain from the young genius Bucky Beneventura, who hijacks Zee to win a science fair (it was cooler than it sounds) and becomes an occasional ally, to the bounty hunter Crick, to IUSeven, another infiltration unit who comes to believe that Zeta is his target.

Following them, alongside Agent Bennet, are Agent’s Lee and West, with Lee replaced by Rush at the end of the first season. Where Bennet is clear minded and goal oriented, Lee is less convinced of Zeta’s status as a fugitive and West is kind of a moron. Okay he’s a complete buffoon. When Lee resigns the team, she is replaced by Rush who is as no-nonsense as her commanding agent. These are the crack team of professionals hunting the allegedly dangerous Zeta. Batman also makes a guest appearance in one episode.

There are only two seasons of The Zeta Project and currently there are no plans to release season two on DVD due to the disappointing sales of the first. Personally, I think it’s one of the greatest animated series ever made with clever writing that doesn’t dumb down to its audience. Instead The Zeta Project asks interesting and important questions of its young viewers; can you defy your programming or are you destined to follow a path set out by your makers? Are those in authority really always in the right? Is humanity defined by just flesh and bone, or by what’s inside you? It also remains incredibly cool and fun while doing so.

The questions may not be overt, but they are there as the backbone of every episode. This is one I would recommend for kids and adults. If you’re a fan of science fiction animation, Batman related or not, check it out. You might have to get a little creative to find season two though.

You can harass the author of this post via Twitter: @CAricHanley