The Matt Signal Beyond – Episode 28: Zeta

Plot summary: Batman finds himself caught between the NSA and their runaway killbot, Zeta.

After completing the original run of Batman The Animated Series, Matt Waters looks to the future each Saturday and Sunday with recaps of every episode of Batman Beyond, building an overall ranking along the way. Plus best performances, the ever-popular Villain Watch and more!

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Notes

Episode Title: ‘Zeta’

Original Air Date: April 8th, 2000

Directed: Dan Riba (8)

Written: Robert Goodman (5)

This acted as a back-door pilot for the spin-off show, The Zeta Project, the only spin-off in the entire DCAU. There was one crossover with Batman Beyond, one with Static Shock, and a trio of Justice League: Unlimited episodes.

Robert Goodman was nominated for an Annie Award for this episode.

Due to how much world building was required for Zeta, this is one of five episodes not to feature Bruce Wayne.

Recap

After their biology teacher answers their question in an overly robotic manner (quoting a lengthy passage from a textbook verbatim), Terry and Max agree something is off with her.

Sure enough, a group of strange men approach ‘Miss Martel’ after the class and draw weapons on her, but she easily evades and flees, commandeering a truck.

One chase later, and Martel produces a pair of guns and engages the group in a shootout, which Batman intervenes in to prevent civilian casualties.

Their leader identifies himself as NSA Agent Bennet, stating “the synthoid” is theirs and Terry should either help or stand down. Martel’s façade drops, returning to a robotic appearance and it escapes.

Barbara Gordon and the GCPD raid Martel’s apartment and find her tied up. She confronts Bennet, who reveals the droid is called Infiltration Unit Zeta, designed for deep espionage, and that six days ago it went rogue after an investigation into a terrorist group.

Naturally, Batman was listening in on the entire meeting, and Babs asks him to keep tabs on Bennet as she doesn’t trust him. She also suspects Zeta was at the school for a reason and will return.

And she is immediately proven right! Max hacks some NSA files about Zeta but is interrupted by Dana offering her a ride to a study group. Max mis-genders a classmate, but Dana thinks nothing of it.

Which is unfortunate, because ‘Max’ sneaks into Gotham Mint and reveals herself to be Zeta in disguise, with the real Max tied up. Zeta demands more thorough information about her life to avoid future slip-ups.

The next day, Terry asks ‘Max’ for some help with his ‘nightlife’ but she is completely oblivious to his wordplay, raising his suspicions enough to follow ‘her’ back to the hideout.

Unfortunately his timing sucks, as he immediately engages Zeta in a fight right after Max talked into disarmament. The two brawl for a bit, with Zeta saving Terry from death via heavy machinery.

Agent Bennet and his men arrive for more shooting, and while Terry and Zeta have a minor disagreement, they ultimately all escape together without casualty.

Zeta tells them that he discovered his NSA target was innocent, and that the experience of infiltrating the man’s family had a profound impact on it, so it spared him.

Max installs a device to block the NSA’s ability to track Zeta and gives it the idea to blend the appearances of past targets to avoid suspicion. She bids him farewell, but Terry is distrustful and follows it.

Everything comes to a head at a train station, where Zeta immediately blows its cover and tries to evade the NSA, with Batman helping take down the agents one by one.

Terry finds Zeta standing over Bennet with a gun, but the killbot states it chooses its own identity and walks away… Leaving it wide open to Bennet shooting it repeatedly in the back!

Zeta stumbles outside and the NSA absolutely riddle it with lasers, sending it hurtling over the edge of a building. Terry gets to it before the NSA can and it reveals it faked its injuries, assumes a new appearance and with Batman’s help, escapes for good.

Best Performance

Gary Cole would be replaced by Diedrich Bader in The Zeta Project. I haven’t heard Bader’s work to compare, but the effects-aided Cole was pretty decent. I would assume he was too expensive for a multi-season endeavour, or maybe he just wasn’t interested.

But the real star here was Cree Summer, who is honestly a threat to win this award virtually every time out. It can’t be overstated how much pizazz she gives Max, but it’s the emotional appeals she makes to Zeta and Terry that steal the show here. Max literally talks a killbot into throwing six guns in the trash, and Summer makes that moment believable.

Joe Spano would also be replaced as Agent Bennet, which makes sense because he didn’t make much of an impression. He will get to perform the role one more time in a future episode of Beyond, though, so we’ll see if he improves.

Ranking

As a sucker for spy games, cool robots and three-party struggles, I felt extremely catered to by this episode. Zeta’s design is different enough to be memorable (it would be altered for his show), and its range of skills/abilities are pretty dope too, chiefly its holographic disguises. It kicks a lot of ass, and looks like a biology teacher while doing some of it, which is top tier stuff.

This is another episode I’d like to have been afforded more time to let its ideas breath, either with a two-parter or as a TV-movie to truly make the launch of the spin-off an event. Not only would this allow them to put Bruce Wayne back into it (to doubtlessly espouse some anti-robot sentiments), but we could fully engage with Zeta’s journey of self-discovery. Robots seeking a soul may be a little trite, but they took a good angle here. I would have loved to have seen flashbacks of the mission that caused it to abandon its ways as an NSA killbot after infiltrating a nice family (I believe an episode of The Zeta Project does depict this, so I may seek that out at some point), and to have revisited the ideas espoused in the opening about determinism and individuality. Speaking of which… maybe put a pin in that little debate for the end of this column.

Zeta’s assessment that it took great precautions to not harm Max and that everything it did was for the greater goal of emancipation is interesting. It sure is creepy when it asks her for more information about her personal life while stroking her face threateningly, not to mention the reckless abandon of the opening chase and shootout. I had half a mind to write it into the villain section, but given it adopts pacifism by the episode’s end, and immediately went on to be the hero of its own cartoon, that wouldn’t be right… even if it is a reformed government killbot.

It’s a really nice touch that Max clearly shares some degree of information under Zeta’s interrogation, but crucially does not spill the beans about Terry’s secret. She’s also the one to talk Zeta into a change of tactics, going as far as to toss away all its dope guns.

The only thing keeping it from ranking higher is the rushed feeling, particularly the ending, where Zeta gets gunned down but feigns greater injury than it actually suffered… even though it definitely did get VERY shot.

  1. Meltdown
  2. Eyewitness
  3. Babel
  4. Disappearing Inque
  5. Spellbound
  6. A Touch of Curaré
  7. Shriek
  8. Rebirth Part I
  9. Bloodsport
  10. Splicers
  11. Zeta (NEW ENTRY)
  12. Hidden Agenda
  13. Lost Soul
  14. Earth Mover
  15. Black Out
  16. Dead Man’s Hand
  17. Rebirth Part II
  18. Once Burned
  19. Revenant
  20. Heroes
  21. Terry’s Friend Dates a Robot
  22. Mind Games
  23. Hooked Up
  24. The Winning Edge
  25. Ascension
  26. Joyride
  27. Golem
  28. Rats

Villain Watch

Agent Bennet (Joe Spano) (first appearance)

Being a big giant narc makes this a very easy character to dislike. Even if you have neutral/positive feelings about government agents for some reason, this one is clearly crooked as hell. Barbara Gordon doesn’t trust him, Terry doesn’t seem to think much of him, and he shoots Zeta in the back!

The NSA using a top secret killbot to assassinate people who are sometimes innocent, and then losing said killbot and engaging in wildly dangerous gunfights at a school is about the most realistic depiction of villainy in the show.

From the perspective of being detestable, he’d rank quite near the top, but unfortunately coolness and character depth are a factor here, so while I’d encourage you to boo this man, I can’t in good conscience rank him very highly.

  1. Inque
  2. Shriek
  3. Mr. Freeze
  4. Curaré
  5. Spellbinder
  6. The Jokerz
  7. Derek Powers/Blight
  8. Stalker
  9. The Royal Flush Gang
  10. Earthmover
  11. Willie Watt
  12. Dr. Cuvier (and pals!)
  13. Mad Stan
  14. Robert Vance
  15. The Terrific Trio
  16. Agent Bennet (NEW ENTRY)
  17. The Brain Trust
  18. Dr. Stephanie Lake
  19. Howard Hodges & General Norman
  20. Paxton Powers
  21. Jackson Chappell
  22. Cynthia
  23. Mr. Fixx
  24. Ratboy

Plugs

Eager for more long-form coverage of Batman? Why not check out my podcast with Mike Thomas, The Tape Crusaders, which reviewed every Batman movie including Return of the Joker.

My other recap column, Marvel Mondays, continues coverage of Hawkeye.

There Will Be Movies continues Ben & Matt’s look back at the 90s each Wednesday. Daydream about quitting your job? Boy do we have the episode for you as we discuss Office Space.

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Matt Waters

Brit dude who likes both things AND stuff and has delusions of being some kind of writer or something. Basketball, video games, comic books, films, music, other random stuff.

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