Since the alphabet is the building block of our language, the Powet Alphabet is the building block of what makes us geeks.

What comes to mind when you think of the DC Animated Universe? Batman? Superman? Justice League? Well that’s just the boring junk that’s based on a comic! The real deal is the spinoff of a spinoff that is “The Zeta Project”! A love story about a robot who befriends a teenage girl with a rebellious spirit who, with access to unlimited cash, runs across the country escaping the feds.


The Zeta Project is a spinoff of Batman Beyond, and because of this the first appearance of the main character of Zeta was in a Batman Beyond episode named simply “Zeta”. In this episode, Terry ends up in the middle of a manhunt between Government agents and an artificial intelligence robot named Zeta. Batman quickly discovers the robot’s motivations to be pure. Zeta’s assignment was to kill an innocent man, and this caused him to rebel against his programming which he considered wrong. To the Government, a robot which no longer follows it’s orders is assumed to be compromised, and from this misunderstanding comes our main plot.


The original ending of this episode was to have the robot be destroyed, but this decision was ultimately abandoned in favour of the kind of happier ending that Kids WB was encouraging at the time, and it’s a good thing too, because what was meant to be a one shot character gave rise to a great show with it’s own rich mythology.


The show’s pitch, “like the Fugitive, but with a robot”, was something the network agreed to instantly. Other details took some work to figure out. While lots of shows on at the time, such as Batman, Superman and Batman Beyond, had a great appeal to older audiences, there was at the time a strong push to make cartoons aimed primarily at the bankable 6-11 year old age group. Pressures existed at the time to make Batman Beyond, which was a dark a broody type show, take place more during the day, in the high school, and more all around kid friendly. There was also interest in shows which would attract more of a female audience.


While The Zeta Project was first envisioned as an even darker, edgier show than Batman Beyond, this wasn’t what the people at Kids WB were going for. The original idea was to have a killer robot going against his programming, but that had his killer edge sneak through from time to time. Needless to say, this is not the show that was ultimately made. As cool as that may have been, what did end up being made was a great show on it’s own, though understandably more kid friendly than it’s predecessors.

Finally The Zeta Project was took place in a bright vibrant futuristic world both similar to the world created in Batman Beyond but at the same time having a completely different tone. Zeta himself gets a huge face lift, going from a robot that doesn’t even have anything resembling a head to a very humanoid and more relatable character. His voice is similarly changed from a metallic kind of creepy sound to a soft spoken unthreatening tone. Zeta, now also going by the hipper name “Zee”, has all kinds of cool tricks up his sleave! Of course he’s a killer robot, so he has all the sweet weapons, but he’s also got Inspector Gadget style extending arms and best of all, a holographic emitter which allows him to alter his appearance at will. Naturally this gives rise to the “Mission Impossible Effect” where you never really know who’s who. We are constantly presented with scenes beginning with the appearance of a previously unseen character, often holding a large object roughly the size of a 15 year old girl who we then discover is actually Zee and his partner in crime.


Rosalie Rowan, or just Ro for short, is Zee’s trustee sidekick. They’re a couple of misfits on the run trying to find their families. When we’re first introduced to the spunky Ro she’s a homeless orphan without a friend in the world. Good thing she ran into a robot with unlimited creds. (That’s money in the Zeta Project world) Her character has a great personality, with a lot of sass and wit, and is the perfect contrast to Zee’s robotic personality, and a perfect guide to his quest to become more human. Ro’s trying to find her real family, and Zeta is on a similar quest. He’s looking for his creator, who we later learn is a Doctor Selig, and although he often has brief encounters with him, they always fail to reconnect.


But just having two people looking for their families isn’t that compelling without having someone chasing them! As in the original Batman Beyond episode, Zeta continues to be chased by Agent Bennett of the NSA and his cronies. Whenever he reveals himself or accessing confidential information, the NSA gets back on his trail. As a bizarre tie in to the rest of the DC universe one of these agents is Agent West. West shares a last name with Wally West, the Flash, and is even voiced by Michael Rosenbaum, voice of the Flash in Justice League. Still, Agent West is in no way super, and is a source of endless comic relief.


The show features a great mix of individual single episode stories mixed with an overall story and continuity that’s fitting with other DC animated universe shows. Running for only 2 seasons, a total of 26 episodes, there isn’t much of a conclusion as the show was canceled abruptly before it’s time. Some elements do, however, get some semblance of closure. The main issue we’re facing for Zeta is him trying to find out why he is like he is, and in doing so he does learn that Dr. Selig put a conscience in his programming. While Zeta is still unable to have a heart to heart with Selig, who appears to die, it is insinuated in a cliffhanger without a followup that he never actually died at all. Agent Bennett, always convinced of Zeta’s guilt is also privy to this information about Zeta’s conscience. Since this happens in the last episode occurring chronologically as the story goes, we again never really get to see if that will affect the dynamic of Agent Bennett trying to catch Zeta.


Ro’s quest for her family does find some limited success. She finds some peace with her adoptive family in Hicksburg, though ultimately decides to keep going and looking for her real family, knowing they’ll always be there for her. She also, after a red herring by an unscrupulous talk show, finally is reunited with her real brother Casey. Still, while being reunited with her parents is something that never pans out, both her and Zee find true friendship and family in each other in the bond they form throughout their travels.


Throughout the series there are many character that come and go, but none more often than the wonderfully irritating Bucky. This kid genious invents a remote which can control any machine, even Zeta, and high jynx ensues. In numerous appearances Bucky is always annoying but ultimately develops a good friendship with Zeta and Ro.


The cast of the Zeta Project is totally solid. The main man Zeta himself is played by the great Diedrich Bader, best known for the role of Oswald in the Drew Carrey show, he gained his place in popular culture playing Rex, the creator of Rex Kwon Do, in the hit movie Napoleon Dynamite. Playing a robot isn’t easy, and here we have an actor who like actors such as Brent Spiner before him, is capable of a great amount of emotional range, but has to tone it down and give a fairly dead pan performance to be convincing as a robot.


Julie Nathanson, who plays Ro, really brings the character to life. She really is responsible for making that character great. Though Julie originally came in to audition for a role in Static Shock, she was asked to read for this character, and then got the part. With her great performance in this show I was anxious to follow her career in more shows, though I still haven’t seen her in much outside of that one Animal Crossing commercial…

Julie Nathanson voices Ro Rowan in The Zeta Project

Michael Rosenbaum also needs mentioning, as the great Agent West. Kurtwood Smith, also known as the Dad from that 70s show or the guy from Robocop, plays Agent Bennet and also on the team is Lauren Tom, Amy from Futurama and of course Terry’s girlfriend Dana from Batman Beyond.


The show also featured some pretty cool guest stars! The Lawrence brothers showed up in “Eye of the Storm” to fight tornadoes. Well actually it was just older brother Joey and youngest brother Andy. I guess Matthew wasn’t down with twister busting. Geek favourite Wil Wheaton also makes an appearance. In “The Wrong Morph”, Wil plays Kevin, a physically disabled boy who is accused of stealing a device capable of making him walk.


As with many spinoffs came the opportunity for crossovers. In the Batman Beyond episode “Countdown” and the Zeta Project episode “Shadows” Zeta and Ro go to Gotham City. The art style of the Batman Beyond episode is fantastic, as we see Zeta Project designs for Zeta and Ro adapted to the style of Batman Beyond and Gotham city creating subtle but noticeable differences while still having the characters look like themselves. Here Zeta appears as he does in the Zeta Project, not like he did back in his first appearance on Batman Beyond. Both of these crossover episodes aired on the same day back in April 2001. So much to say, if you’re a hardcore Batman Beyond fan, you’ll have to watch his Zeta Project episode to get the whole story!


To date, half the series has been released on DVD. Season 1’s 12 episode are gathered in this first fairly inexpensive 2 disc set. The two episodes of Batman Beyond in which Zeta appears, “Zeta” and “Countdown” are also included, though it’s hard to imagine a hardcore Zeta Project fan not also being a Batman Beyond fan. Also included is a very cool featurette, “The Making of Zeta”, which talks to a bunch of people involved with the show and gives a great deal of backstory. Also shown throughout this feature are various storyboards and pieces of production art for the show. Here’s hoping sales for the first season were enough to encourage a second season release.


Ultimately, the Zeta Project was just a great show. Many fans may have passed it up due to it’s childish exterior, and while it truly is aimed at a younger audience, the quality of the show does not suffer for this, but instead we get a different approach to a show by the people responsible for bringing us some of our favourites like Batman, Batman Beyond, Superman and Justice League. If you’re looking for something fun, quick and easy to watch, you can’t go wrong with checking out The Zeta Project.


For more on the Zeta Project, check out:
My old Zeta Project web page “Ground Wire” with hundreds of screen caps
The Zeta Project at the World’s Finest
The Zeta Project at the Internet Movie Database
The Zeta Project at the DCAU Wiki
Julie Nathanson’s official web site