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Western Animation: The Zeta Project

The Zeta Project is a 2001 cartoon series set in the DC Animated Universe, specifically the future years depicted in Batman Beyond, its parent show.

The story's main character, Infiltration Unit Zeta, is a shape-shifting synthoid: a humanoid robot designed to carry out covert assassinations on the behalf of the NSA. However, when Zeta discovers that one of his targets is innocent, he experiences a kind of existential crisis about goodness and the value of life; following this epiphany, Zeta finds he can no longer kill. The newly enlightened Zeta refuses to continue on as an infiltration unit and abandons his mission, going rogue. Zeta is pursued by a team of NSA agents, led by the obsessed Agent Bennett, and aided by a Ro Rowen, a 15-year-old runaway whose life Zeta saves in the pilot. The general plot of the show, then, is the Stern Chase between Zeta and Ro (as they attempt to prove that Zeta is genuinely non-violent), and the NSA agents pursuing him (who believe that the terrorists he was investigating before going rogue have reprogrammed him for some unknown purpose). To prove his innocence, Zeta and Ro search for his creator, the elusive Dr. Selig.

As mentioned above, the Zeta character made his first appearance in the Batman Beyond episode "Zeta" (surprisingly not a Poorly Disguised Pilot, as his appearance there is as a mere (anti)-Villain of the Week later deemed a worthy enough idea for a separate show), and the Terry McGinnis Batman appears in TZP episode Shadows. Zeta reappears in the penultimate episode of Batman Beyond, "Countdown", accompanied by Ro and pursued by Bennett's agents. In the later-produced but chronologically-earlier Justice League, Z-8 training robots appear in numerous episodes, appearing to be earlier generations of the Zeta robot.

Being the only show in the DCAU to feature a full cast of Canon Foreigners from the comics universe, it is sometimes seen as the Black Sheep of the DCAU, but well worth checking out on DVD

Not to be confused with Anaheim Electronics' Zeta Project or Zettai Hero Project.

This Show Has Examples Of:

  • Actual Pacifist: Zeta.
  • Action Girl: Ro had her moments. Agent Lee also qualifies.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Averted by the fanbase and show itself; Zeta's innocent nature is very endearing, especially since he came out of the middle of the Dark Age where he stood out like a sore thumb in the DCAU.
  • Arbitrarily Large Bank Account: Zeta is able to create as much money as he wants.
  • Beach Episode: In season 1, there was an episode called "Crime Waves" (originally titled "The Beach") where Ro and Zee are relaxing at the beach, because they couldn't find any new leads on Dr. Selig. Of course, it doesn't take long for our heroes to get into trouble, but we get to see Ro in a swimsuit for most of the episode.
  • Berserk Button: Threatening Ro, civilians, or even his enemies is a bad idea. Zeta does not react well to physical violence.
  • Becoming the Mask: Part of the Back Story. Zeta replaced an accountant in order to discover the details of his transactions with a terrorist organization (the accountant was never aware of the organization's true, violent nature). However, as he spent time in the role, Zeta found himself caring more and more for the man's family. When the accountant returns home early and Zeta's programming dictates that he needs to be lethally silenced, Zeta lets him live to spare his family the pain of losing him.
  • Blunt Metaphors Trauma: Zeta, on occasion.
  • Bounty Hunter: Rohan Krick, and to a lesser extent, the NSA agents.
  • Broke Episode: One of Zeta's most touted features is the ability to generate as much money as he needs, so of course in one episode this is disabled. However, it's played more like a Hostage For Macguffin episode. Zeta's infinite cred card was the only way out of the airport hub he was in, and the guy who did the disabling wanted some free supplies (that Zeta couldn't just buy for him) from around the hub.
  • Celebrity Lie: Sometimes Zeta unintentionally is forced into this, due to his ability to copy anyone's appearance.
  • Children Are Innocent: Though adult in appearance, Zeta hasn't lived long enough to get jokes, slang, or innuendo, and seems to take people at their word most of the time. He's also a terrible judge of character due to believing the best of people. When he's shapeshifted into child form, even the other kids find him ultra-naive.
  • CIA Evil, FBI Good: Averted entirely, as the Zeta threat is given over instead to a NSA taskforce and seems to be handled entirely handled by them. Given how often the NSA is ignored in fiction, this seems odd until you learn that the NSA does in fact have these taskforces in real life. Counts also as Shown Their Work.
  • The Comically Serious: Bennett. Agent Lee is a mixture of this and Deadpan Snarker.
  • Conscience Makes You Go Back: In the pilot, Ro abuses Zeta's good nature for some credits and a shopping trip, but she ends up saving him from the agents when he's in trouble.
  • Crossover: With Batman Beyond.
  • Didn't Think This Through: On both the heroic and villainous sides. Justified in that neither side really has time to think it through, but a lot of the plans to catch Zeta and Zeta's escape plans are really bad. Agent West and Zeta are the worst offenders, being respectively the most naive members of their teams.
  • Does Not Understand Sarcasm: Zeta. When Ro sarcastically remarks that she wants a lifetime supply of chocolate, Zeta offers to buy it for her.
  • Dystopia: Although more brightly colored than Batman Beyond, it manages to qualify by a landslide. The poor are treated terribly, law enforcement is corrupt from the police to the NSA and beyond, it's Twenty Minutes into the Future, and there's a grand total of two sane characters on the show outside the title character, neither of whom have any real power.
  • Evil Counterpart: Infiltration Unit 7. It shoots up a public place while disguised as Zeta (his common holographic overlay, that is), causing Batman to chase Zeta again.
  • Family-Friendly Firearms: Used and justified in-show. Zeta threw away all his lethal weapons after he realized he couldn't bring himself to harm anyone. Futuristic weapons have to be used on him instead of normal guns because he's a robot - normal guns would not damage him significantly and the bullets could deflect off the metal and injure bystanders.
  • Fantastic Racism: Sentient robots suffer from this, big time, despite this being the DCAU where such a thing is certainly not without precedent.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Zeta.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: Due to the NSA being the least well known out of the trinity of the CIA, FBI and NSA, many younger viewers fell under the impression the NSA is one of these. It is not.
  • Hard Light: His holographic disguise was sometimes treated as this, sometimes not.
  • Harmless Freezing: Averted. A scientist gets flash-frozen, then Zeta explains that he must thaw the man slowly or the shock will kill him.
  • Hero Antagonist: Agent Bennet's group.
  • Hey, It's That Voice!: Zeta himself and Infiltration Unit 7 are voiced by Diedrich Bader. Agent Bennett is voiced by Kurtwood Smith, a.k.a. Red Forman. Also, in the cross-over episode with Batman Beyond, Kevin Conroy and Will Friedle reprise their roles as Bruce Wayne and Batman (Terry), respectively.
  • I Am Not a Gun: Or in Zeta's words, he doesn't wish to destroy anymore. In addition, his statement that "I decide who I want to be" could count as this.
  • I Have Your Wife: Actually, it's I Have Your Archenemy. Zeta just has high enough moral standards for this to work on him regardless, and it's what helps Agent Lee realize Zeta could be telling the truth.
  • I Want My Jetpack: There are future hippies and protestors who want space travel to be available to the common man, not just rich people.
  • I Want Them Alive: Justified - Zeta is an incredibly expensive piece of equipment and they simply can't afford to damage him. Add on to that the fact that they want to know why he went rogue. When Agent West fires on Zeta in the first episode, he gets in big trouble with Bennett.
  • Inspector Javert: Bennett, even though he begins to understand that Zeta isn't as dangerous as he seems. The back cover blurb on the DVD broaches the topic directly: "Just who is the real danger to humanity?"
  • IN SPACE!: It's The Fugitive set in the future.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: Averted. The NSA works well with normal authorities like the police or sheriff's department. Played straight in their interactions with superheroes as the NSA is notorious for secrecy and complex planning while superheroes in the DCAU are very much public figures and their actions are widely known, in addition to the lack of planning most heroes end up employing.
    • Bennet comes into conflict with the military later on, as the scientist Zeta is pursuing is attached to a very classified project well beyond Bennet's pay grade. Bennet outright breaks the law several times just to continue his chase, simply because Zeta was literally designed to infiltrate any organization and gets through those barriers a lot easier than he can.
  • Kid With The Remote Control: Bucky Buenventura, an initially malevolent one who uses his universal remote to control Zeta against his will.
  • Kill the Poor: The "criminalizing poverty" variant was used in the episode "Hunt in the Hub," where anyone who runs out of money is immediately hunted down by the security guards as a vagrant. This at least makes some sense, as the Hub is essentially a massive airport terminal in the middle of nowhere, so they can't have broke people just wandering about. The creepiest part is that none of the characters seem to find this strange.
  • Last Name Basis: Agents West, Lee and Bennett all refer to each other like this. Dropping the Agent title while addressing each other is about as friendly as they get with each other. They all have given names according to the credits, they just don't use them.
  • Left Hanging
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Agent West
    Bennett: Then shoot him down!
    Rush: Don't tempt me with that sir.
  • Let's Get Dangerous: When Zeta nearly has his mind wiped, his assassination protocols kick in while his backup memory is busy restoring itself. Even without his considerable arsenal, he kicks a lot of ass.
    • Agent Bennett when his son is threatened. He completely ceases to care about Zeta and zeroes in on one thing only, his child. He's even seen unconsciously fiddling with his sidearm throughout the ordeal despite normally being the one who berates others for excessive use of a sidearm.
    • Agent Lee is the benign, more reasonable half of her duo with West, but she also manages to fight and hold off a mercenary with her arms duct taped behind her back at one point.
  • Lighter and Softer: As the DVDs reveal, the show was supposed to be as dark or darker than Batman Beyond, but Executive Meddling kept it from getting too serious.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Semi-justified in Ro's case by them always being on the move, but they start to change up her outfits later on anyway.
    • Rather creepily shown by hacker/stalker Buss, who wears a shirt similar to her black one prompting her desire to wear different clothes.
  • Loophole Abuse: When Zeta and Ro took refuge within a "No-Tech" village, the Agents couldn't go there without a court order. As Bennett went to the nearest town to get one, he told the other Agents to keep watching and not to set foot inside the village. Agent West then took a flying module to enter the village without setting foot inside it. To his misfortune, the villagers had catapults and rocks to defend themselves.
  • Love Redeems: Through being a parent and spending time with a family, Zeta realized he couldn't hurt anyone, and went on the run rather than do so.
  • Ludd Was Right: The "No-Tech" villages.
  • Memory Gambit: One of the last reveals of the show is that a previously unknown module implanted in Zeta was in fact a mechanical conscience.
  • The Messiah: Zeta.
  • Morality Pet: Bucky's own parents serve this function in one episode. It Makes Sense in Context.
  • Motive Decay: The bounty hunter from "Taffy Time". In that episode, he wanted to capture Zeta for the reward. His next appearance featured him chasing Zeta not for the reward (which he no longer cared about) but to exact vengeance for what happened to him in "Taffy Time".
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: They were able to avert this in one episode to have Zeta hold Ro close at one point. The rest of the time, this is in full effect.
    • Well, not completely. Zeta effortlessly plants a very convincing Forceful Kiss on Ro's stepsister, after all. His holograms were evidently in Hard Light mode at the time, since she seemed to believe she'd been kissed by a dashing celebrity as opposed to a toaster.
      • It makes sense for Zeta to have that sort of hardware installed, when you think about it. He is an infiltration droid. At the very least, he has to be able to maintain the relationships of those he impersonates. At the worst...
      • His time with the wife of the first man he impersonated, however, explicitly invokes this trope, perhaps because an unmarried man engaging in romantic relations with a married woman under false pretenses wouldn't fly on children's television. The wife states Zeta as her husband is distant and work obsessed.
      • The Zee/Ro shippers would doubtlessly find all this very interesting.
  • No Paper Future: A constant plot point is that Zeta has a cred card with unlimited funds.
  • Na´ve Everygirl: Zeta is a male example.
  • New-Age Retro Hippie: A group of them protest space travel being limited to the rich while the poor are stuck on an increasingly dystopian Earth. They're also very kind people who take Zeta and Ro in, give them a temporary place to stay and help them hide from the NSA. They also think Zeta's an alien.
  • Only Sane Man: Ro is the first to realize Zeta is genuinely good, followed by Agent Lee. Agent Lee in general, even before that, is the most reasonable person in the NSA.
  • The Other Darrin: Both Zeta and Agent Bennett. They were voiced by Gary Cole and Joe Spano respectively in their debut on Batman Beyond, but The Zeta Project and their subsequent appearances on Batman Beyond had them voiced by, again respectively, Diedrich Bader and Kurtwood Smith.
  • Papa Wolf: Bennet may be an Inspector Javert, but he's a father above all else. Messing with his son is the only thing that makes him drop his adversarial relationship with Zeta, which is saying something.
  • Parental Abandonment: Ro. Her search for her family is one of the main storylines.
  • Perpetual Frowner: Agent Bennett, although he does get in one single smile when with his son in their episode. Agent Lee rarely smiles, but she does have much more of a range of expressions than he does, and her few smiles come when her partner is alright, hinting at a soft side.
  • Phlebotinum Rebel
  • Platonic Life Partners: Despite what shippers may wish, it is Wordof God that Zeta and Ro are Like Brother and Sister. Agent Lee and West have shades of this in the first season only.
  • Playful Hacker: Meg, Plug, and Buss. Then they cross into The Cracker territory when they decide to strip Zeta for parts.
  • Poorly Disguised Pilot: From Batman Beyond ("Zeta"), though not originally intended as such.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: Purple, specifically a light lavender, is part of the uniform for NSA Agents, male and female alike. (Their coats are black, their shirts underneath are white or lavender depending on rank and displayed rather prominently.)
  • Reckless Sidekick: West, to Lee and later to Rush.
  • Required Spinoff Crossover
  • Shout-Out: In "Taffy Time", Ro made references to Hansel and Gretel. Zee didn't catch any.
  • Shown Their Work: The National Security Agency does in fact have task forces like that Bennett, West and Lee are a part of. They do in fact have field agents, guns and badges, and the ability to pull rank on police officers as shown in the Batman Beyond episode where Zeta returns to Gotham. Essentially, despite the Twenty Minutes into the Future setting, all procedures shown are standard, right up to Agent West getting benched for using his sidearm in a heavily crowded area full of civilians.
  • Spell My Name with an S: A lot of the characters got this in varying dubs. Is it Lee or Li? Bennett, Benett or Bennet? West or Wes? The answers vary depending on what language you watched the show in.
    • An interview once gave Lee's first name as Mingxia. Cue the usual misspellings of a Chinese name in fansites.
    • Agent West's first name is Orin. Not Oren, as some fansites say.
  • Spin-Off: of Batman Beyond.
  • Stern Chase: Zeta for his creator, Ro for members of her biological family, the NSA Agents and IU7 for Zeta.
  • Strange Bedfellows: Zeta and Agent Bennett, when Ro and Bennett's son are trapped in a submarine.
  • Telescoping Robot: Zeta, part Rubber Man part Voluntary Shape Shifter.
  • Tinman Typist: Averted. Zeta has the benefit of an I/O cable, and when he does type it isn't all that fast.
  • Too Soon: After 9/11 the NSA agents stopped making references to terrorism or Zeta being mistaken for one.
    • ...which is Hilarious in Hindsight as, after 9/11, the NSA became more focused on terrorism in Real Life than they ever had been back when the series started, although they were fighting domestic terrorism when the show was first written.
  • Tomboy: Ro Rowan. Agent Lee is a more subtle example, but it's there.
  • Turn the Other Cheek: No matter how much easier killing Bennett would make his life, no matter what Bucky does to him and no matter how many times people try to kill him, Zeta will respond by saving their lives, helping them and being non-violent. Ro, not so much.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: One of the most benign examples, as Zeta just wants to be left alone, but Agent Bennett believes that it is much more serious a case.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Cute?: The probable reason for the redesign of Zeta's head between Batman Beyond and this series.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Addressed, discussed and just generally present with Zeta.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Zeta. West has shades of this, being blindly devoted albeit incompetent to what he thinks is the right side.

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alternative title(s): Zeta Project; The Zeta Project
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