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Western Animation / The Zeta Project

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My name is Zeta. I was built as a weapon to destroy, but I will not destroy anymore.

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 Rowan, 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 as Batman appears in 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. The Batman Beyond comic mentions that Zeta has joined the new Terrific Trio alongside Plastic Man and former Batman Beyond villain Earth Mover. (This may not be canon, as Earth Mover died in his debut episode, and the comic in question was part of an alternate continuity outside of the DC Animated Universe.)

Being a Batman Beyond spin-off, it's officially part of the DCAU, and the only show in the continuity to feature a full cast of Canon Foreigners who did not originate in previous comics from DC.

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

This Show Has Examples Of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Buss’s crush on Ro is intense and unrequited.
  • Action Girl: Ro had her moments. Agent Lee also qualifies.
  • Arbitrarily Large Bank Account: One of Zeta's features is the ability to generate a holographic cred card with any amount of money he wants, because his creators wanted to make sure there would be no financial barriers between him and whoever he was supposed to kill.
  • Art Evolution: Season 2 starts shading the characters (originally, they were flat-colored) and has more detail before soon transitioning to a more handdrawn artstyle and animation, not unlike what would later be used in Static Shock and Justice League and used previously in late Batman Beyond.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Bodyguard Betrayal: Rich kid Wade Pennington’s bodyguard Sven is scheming to have him kidnapped.
  • 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. He does it deliberately once. Hilarity Ensues.
  • 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.
  • Cyberpunk
  • CIA Evil, FBI Good: Averted completly, as the Zeta threat is instea given over to an NSA taskforce and seems to be handled entirely 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.
  • Conveyor Belt o' Doom: During an episode where Zeta is fighting a bounty hunter in a candy factory, some of the automated production belts get put to use this way.
  • Crossover: There are four with Batman Beyond, the very show it spun off from. The Batman Beyond episode "Countdown" features a return by Zeta sporting his The Zeta Project design and accompanied by Ro and the episode "Plague" features Agent Bennett back in Gotham for a reason that doesn't involve Zeta, while the show itself features Batman and Bruce Wayne in the episode "Shadows" and an encounter with the Brain Trust from the Batman Beyond episode "Mind Games" in the episode "Ro's Gift".
  • Creative Closing Credits: The end credits usually run over a still of Zeta and Ro running (taken from the opening titles); for the Series Finale they accompany a picture of Dr. Selig. The crossover with Batman Beyond also sees Robert Goodman's "Created By" credit (which usually appears with the series title) relegated to the end credits - after the one for "Batman Characters Created By Bob Kane," there's one for "Zeta Project Characters Created By Robert Goodman."
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Zigzagged with the Zeta Project scientists. In the first place they were building a weapon for the government rather than any supervillain. But played straight in that once the project was complete several of them (Arroyo, Boyle and Myrell) left government service in order to use the kind of technological innovations they’d built Zeta with for more widely accessible and beneficial science (Industrial robotics, a space probe and technology to cure disabled children respectively). That being said, Boyle and Myrell both have trouble funding that peaceful research and commit some criminal act to rectify that.
  • Da Editor: Pat, the boss of Ro’s brother pushes him to sell them out to the government and get an exclusive on the capture.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Ro primarily but Agent Lee gets a few good ones too.
  • 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.
  • 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 20 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.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Carl Findlay invented a device to stop tornadoes and is fairly bitter that his brother Dex gets the glory just for being the pilot.
  • Enemy Mine: Zeta and Agent Bennett, when Ro and Bennett's son are trapped in a submarine.
  • 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.
  • Eyepatch of Power: The tough savvy and generally intimidating Rodin Krick. Has a cybernetic patch over one of his eyes.
  • 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. Especially true in the No-Tech village.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The No-Tech village's aversion to technology, clothing, and facial hair are clearly modeled on the Amish.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Zeta.
  • Future Imperfect: Just about every episode in the first season ends with Zeta and Ro looking at an item from the past and getting misinformed ideas on what they were for, such as thinking that diaper pins were actually used to pin the diaper to the infant and that egg timers were used to time the hatching of eggs.
  • Happily Adopted: Casey, who even took his foster mom's last name.
  • Hard Light: Zeta's 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: The NSA is attempting to capture Zeta because they believe he's either malfunctioning or has been outright subverted by another party. They don't believe Zeta's claims that he doesn't want to hurt anyone anymore and want to know why their assassination droid would suddenly abandon its mission.
  • Hiding in Plain Sight: In "Wired, Part 2", Zeta and Ro are trying to escape the NSA facility where the assassin droids are tested. Bennet at one point comes upon a testing room with an adult and child. Wisely paranoid, he shoots the two with a forcefield gun, revealing both to be droids. Satisfied, he leaves, at which point the pile of debris in the room is revealed to be Zeta and Ro.
  • Hunting the Rogue: The story is about an NSA infiltration robot who developed a conscience on his own and is on the run.
  • 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:
  • 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: The series ends without a proper resolution and with Zeta and Ro still on the run from the NSA. It was the only DCAU TV show to end with an unresolved cliffhanger.
  • 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: In spite of being a spinoff of Batman Beyond, the show has a less grim and more upbeat tone. 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 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.
  • Lovable Coward: Doctor Edmunds in the finale is living in a frightened state and is reluctant to take pet in the operations against Brother’s Day but does help in the end.
  • 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.
  • Mafia Princess: Dominique De Flyers is known for sneaking off the estate of her arms dealer father to go shopping and flirting with the uncomfortable guards once she gets back.
  • Martial Pacifist: Zeta prefers to use his strength as a last resort.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • Naïve 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.
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: There is no romance in the show.
  • No-Paper Future: A constant plot point is that Zeta can generate a cred card with unlimited funds.
  • Oddball in the Series: The only DCAU show not centered on an existing DC Comics property.
  • 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.
    • Amy is the No-Tech most willing to listen to Zeta and Ro.
  • Opportunistic Bastard: Dr. Boyle, who made Zeta’s weather resistant armor, comes to suspect Zera will come looking for him and sets things up to trap him., both to avoid danger and to force Zeta to steal parts for his space probe.
  • 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: Zeta himself, a government kill bot running around for reasons they can't explain, and understandably they want him back to figure out why.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Despite what shippers may wish, it is Word of 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.
  • Reluctant Mad Scientist: All of the named scientist who helped build Zeta either seem morally uncomfortable with making an assassination robot and/or moved onto other, more peaceful and widely beneficial, fields of science afterwards.
  • Required Spinoff Crossover: As a spinoff of Batman Beyond, both Batman Beyond and the series itself have an episode where Zeta and Ro encounter Terry McGinnis. The episode "Ro's Gift" also features an appearance by Brain Trust, an organization that appeared on Batman Beyond in the episode "Mind Games".
  • Robo Vision: Frequent use from Zeta's perspective.
  • Sarcasm-Blind:
    • Zeta. When Ro sarcastically remarks that she wants a lifetime supply of chocolate, Zeta offers to buy it for her.
    • Agent West, on occasion, though more often he's Late to the Punchline.
  • 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 what 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 20 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.
  • Simple Solution Won't Work: In the first episode of the show, Agent Bennett explains to his subordinates why they cannot just shoot the runaway Infiltration Unit Zeta (and as a matter of fact, he reads Agent West the riot act when he tries this with his back-up piece later in the same episode): 1) Zeta is an advanced assassination robot which should be impossible to hack, so they need to retrieve him intact so they can figure out who reprogrammed him; 2) As well, Zeta is an incredibly expensive piece of equipment and the government would really like to keep said investment as intact as possible; 3) Because he's an assassination robot, they really want to prevent Zeta from escalating and possibly injuring many innocent bystanders as collateral damage (same risk if they use heavy weaponry to try to take him down in any populated areas).
  • Space Amish: The "No-Tech" village is a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of the Amish 20 Minutes into the Future.
  • 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.
  • Spit Take: Ro spit out the drink Zee gave her. She originally asked for a root beer, a cherry soda or a cola. However, Zee interpreted this as all the three drinks in one. By the end of the episode however, Ro thought it wasn't that bad.
  • Stern Chase: Zeta for his creator, Ro for members of her biological family, the NSA Agents and IU7 for Zeta.
  • Telescoping Robot: Zeta, part Rubber Man part Voluntary Shape Shifter.
  • The Stoic: Zeta and IU7, being robots.
  • The Tape Knew You Would Say That: In one episode, Bucky is kidnapped and triggers a latent message that he hid on Zeta in case of such an eventuality. Twice during the recording he correctly predicts Ro insulting him. He even predicted the exact insult the first time.
  • Tinman Typist: Averted. Zeta has the benefit of an I/O cable, and when he does type it isn't all that fast.
  • Tomboy: Ro Rowan. Agent Lee is a more subtle example, but it's there.
  • Token Evil Teammate: Among the Zeta design team that Zee and Ro have met so far, Dr. Boyle is the most malicious of them. When Ro and Zee try to meet with him, he hijacked Zee's infinite credit card and blackmails them into stealing goods for him. That being said, all he's trying to steal are the parts for a legitimate but apparently over budget space probe, which doesn't make him too bad, and he makes a point the parts he needs stolen won't bring harm to others by virtue of Zeta stealing them, even if it is dishonest.
  • 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.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: In the No-Tech village when Zeta tries to prevent a man-made faulty dam from breaking after failing to convince the leader that the way it was built won't hold back the incoming flood. Once he's revealed to be a synthoid robot, they try to destroy him.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Cute?: The probable reason for the redesign of Zeta's head between Batman Beyond and this series. An eyeless boomerang head is hardly an attractive feature.
  • 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.