Easily the best of all the Gundam stories, Zeta is a lot darker than any other Gundam series I've seen. It really brings home the horrors of war, and, this is a bit of a spoiler, it doesn't have a happy ending. A lot of characters die, even the ones that survive come out of it profoundly changed.
Set seven years after the One Year War which took place in the original Mobile Suit Gundam, we have a case of history repeating itself. With the Zeons out of the way, the Earth Federation becomes drunk with power. This is especially the case with the Titans. The Titans are a special military force formed to hunt down renegade Zeons and suppress anti-Federation movements. It's not long before they want to run the whole show and are every bit as bad as the Zeons ever were.
Now that we've established our new vilains, we can start plugging things into the Gundam Formula. Being the evil organization they are, the Titans have developped new Gundam mobile suits; the RX-178 Mk.II. Interestingly, this series starts exactly the same as the original with Char Aznable (now calling himself Quattro Bajeena - sorry to spoil it, but you should have realized this in the first 30 seconds anyway) infiltrating the colony where the Gundams are being developped with plans to destroy/steal them.
Moving along with the Forumula, when Quattro and company attack, our completely inexperienced boy hero, Kamille Bidan, winds up in the Mk.II's cockpit and proceeds to defeat the other pilots who have been training to use them for a while. Like most Spacenoids, Kamille is completely fed up with the Titans, Kamille helps Quattro steal not only the Mk.II he's piloting, but also the one he defeated, giving them two of the three new suits.
One of the things I like best about Zeta is that Char is now a good guy and one of the most prominant members of the A.E.U.G. The fact that a lot of the hero characters from the original are also back and working side by side with Char for the same aims provides a really neat dynamic to the story.
The down side is that since Char is now a good guy, there's really no focal enemy to take up his former role. The closest would be Jerid Messa, but he's not a skill match for Kamille the way Char was for Amuro; Kamille is better than Jerid from the start and Jerid never catches up. The Jerid/Kamille rivalry is mostly about Jerid trying to salvage his pride because Kamille hands him his ass every time they fight. There's also the fact that Kamille keeps killing off Jerid's girlfriends in battle, but it's tough to feel sorry for Jerid because he's an idiot.
Anyway, returning to the forumla, the Argama (which looks infinitly better than the White Base BTW) spends it's time running from various enemies. We lose track of it for a bit when the hero characters go to Earth since it never enters the atmosphere, but it's still the hero ship when they come back.
Then, the Formula caps off as usual with the super weapons coming into play and a huge all or nothing battle to finish everything off.
Zeta handles the mobile suit revolving door much better than the original did. Yes, new models keep getting introduced, but there actually seems to be a logic to it, not just "well, we blew up the new model last episode, lets come up with an other new one to blow up this episode". The new models actually have some staying power this time around. The oddest one of these is the Methuss. As far as I could tell, there was only ever actually one of these built. It was a prototype; it was unique. However, it gets blown up at least 3 times, yet it's always back in action for the next battle. I just couldn't figure that one out.
Again, lots of characters to talk about. First off, we have a new main hero, Kamille Bidan. Honestly, I like him a lot better than I did Amuro. Like Amuro, Kamille starts out as a throughly disagreable child. Unlike Amuro, Kamille grows up. If you make it through his initial spats and attitude, he actually turns into a likable character - probably my second favorite in this series. Kamille has a bit of a complex about his name - it's a girl's name after all - and this is actually what starts the rivalry between Kamille and Jerid; Jerid makes fun of Kamille's name, and Kamille decks him. Again, comparing Kamille to Amuro, if it were Amuro, the whole name thing would have probably lasted the whole show, and gotten quite irritating. In fact it did get irritating, but that emphasized Kamille's growing maturity since he got over it by episode 18. Like Amuro once again, Kamille spends a good chunk of time denying that he's a Newtype. However, as a Newtype, Kamille far surpasses anything Amuro had previously reached. He basically became the ultimate Newtype and, if he'd continued on, I don't think anyone could have stopped him.
Next is Quattro Bajeena, a.k.a Char Aznable, a.k.a. The Red Comet, a.k.a. Edward Mass, a.k.a. Casval Rem Deikun. That's a lot of aliases, makes you wonder how he keeps track of them all. I think his character is what makes a lot of the character dynamics in Zeta really interesting. The way he's now allied with the people he was determined to destroy in the original is really a fairly fresh spin, and there's very little animosity to show for it. He receives a little from Amuro and Kai, but he expresses non towards the people who had confounded him and disgraced him so long ago. Still as skilled a pilot as ever, Quattro acts as something of a mentor to Kamille and takes a much more laid back approach with him than the rest of the military-types do. He's rarely the key factor in the events that are occuring, but he's almost always there backing up the lead. Maybe the best thing about him is that he hasn't really changed. He's still very mature, very shrewed, and very charismatic. His goals are the same as they always were, it just happens that they're now the same goals as his former enemies.
Once again, my favorite character is the lead female pilot (she's probably the closest thing this series has to a female lead period). Emma Sheen is probably the number 3 pilot in the A.E.U.G., behind only Kamille and Quattro in terms of skill. She starts out the story as one of the Titan pilots testing the Mk.II, but can't stand for the attrocious actions the Titans commit. She defects to the A.E.U.G. early in the series, and brings the last Gundam Mk.II with her giving the A.E.U.G. all three of them. Since the A.E.U.G. only ever fields one Mk.II, Emma initially pilots a Rick Dias, but goes back to the Mk.II when Kamille moves on to the Zeta. She also acts as something of a mentor to Kamille. She falls somewhere between Quattro and the military-types; she'll resort to physical disciplin, but she also takes the time to explain things to him so that he'll understand why what he did was wrong. Kamille has a great deal of respect for her, and may also have some romantic feelings for her too. Or it might just be a big sister/little brother kind of relationship. I like Emma because she's the most grounded of all the characters. All the other characters have a load of character flaws that make them irritating. Not Emma. She's very realistic and practical. She deals with what matters now and doesn't bother with the lofty, far off ideals everyone else seems to have. She just doesn't have the baggage everyone else seems to have. For me, what made Kamille my second favorite character is that, as the series progresses, he becomes more and more like Emma.
Bright Noa is back, and he hasn't changed a lot. His command decisions are still as confounding as ever, only now he lacks the uncertainty he used to have and sets his questionable commands into action that much faster. Like Emma, Bright defects to the A.E.U.G. because he can no longer tollerate the Titan's heavy handed actions.
Fa Yuiry is this series' Fraw Bow equivalent. She's Kamille's childhood friend he grew up with and mainly serves to add confusion to the whole relationship aspect of the show. Like Kamille, Fa is a much better character than Fraw was. She's more mature and even goes so far as to become a pilot herself. Where Fraw ultimately seemed like an annoying little sister to Amuro, Fa actually comes off as a legitimate romantic interest.
Reccoa Londe is yet another mentor character to Kamille. This seems largely because she's the only one the A.E.U.G. can spare to deal with him when he first comes on board the Argama. Kamille develops a huge schoolboy crush on her and never totally gets over it. All I can really say about her is that this lady has issues.
Four Murasame is this series' Lalah Sune. The enemy's guinea pig Newtype pilot who the hero falls in love with. Four, as her name implies, is the fourth experimental "Cyber Newtype" produced by the Earth Federation. This is basically their attempt at deliberately creating Newtypes by artificial means instead of just waiting for it to happen. The problem with the Cyber Newtypes is that they go through heavy brainwashing and memory modification and are very mentally unstable as a result. Unlike Lalah in the original, there's no love triangle going on around Four; it's just her and Kamille. Also, unlike the original where Amuro and Lalah only actually met for maybe 10 minutes and developped their relationship on an entirely telepathic level, Four and Kamille actually spend time together and develop a real person-to-person relationship.
Amuro Rey is also back (unfortunately). His character development is much the same as Bright's, ie: not at all. He's as petulant and immature as he ever was, only now, instead of questionning himself, he just assumes he always knows best. To emphasize this, he doesn't get along with Quattro at all, and still has a huge chip on his shoulder over the whole Lalah Sune thing. They function just fine together on a professional level, but they'll never be friends.
Since the Argama never enter's the atmosphere, Hayato Kobayashi fills Bright's role while the heroes are on Earth. Honestly, I wish he'd taken Bright's place for the whole show. Where Bright gets by on the reputation luck built for him, Hayato actually has tallent. Also of note, Hayato did wind up marrying Fraw Bow, and the two of them adopted Katz, Letz, and Kikka.
I really wish they'd just left Katz Kobayashi out of the show. Right when Kamille grows up and starts leaving his irritating childishness behind, in comes Katz to pick up the slack. He's everything that was irritating about Kamille at the start, but lacking pretty much all of his virtues. Katz is just annoying and I wish he would just die...
Time for some bad guys. Jerid Messa is probably the closest character in Zeta to the original Char. Except that he's an inept idiot. While he does improve over time, where Char was a threat to Amuro, Jerid is nothing more than a nuisance to Kamille. Okay, so killing Kamille's mother right in front of him is slightly more than a nuisance offence but the talk he has with Kamille afterwards just emphasizes what an idiot he is and that he was really just the clueless tool, not the one pulling the trigger, so to speak. The only thing that really keeps Jerid going is his anger towards Kamile. Like I said before, Kamille always gets the better of him in fights and always winds up being the one that kills his girlfriends in battles. However, his blatant idiocity makes it really hard to feel sorry for him.
The only other character that could possibly fill the Char role would be Yazan Gable. While he has all skill Jerid lacks, his rivalry with Kamille has no personal elements to it, and is entirely about Yazan being a bloodthirsty maniac who wants to prove how great he is.
The main villain from the Titans would probably be Bask Om. He's one of the highest ranking Titan officers, and while he doesn't actually do much, he's responsible for planning most of the Titans' attrocities.
The other main villain associated with the Titans (but not really) is Paptimus Scirocco. He's lived out around Jupiter for I don't know how long and is only recently returnned to the Earth Sphere. He's brimming with Newtype power, and is responsible for most of the unique, high performance mobile armors that show up in the series. He's one of those "watch-while-I-manipulate-everyone-else-to-acheive-my-goals-while-doing-nothing-myself" types. I find the whole air of superiority irritating.
The final main villain is Haman Karn. While Mineva Zabi (infant daughter of the late Dozel Zabi from the original series) may be the official leader of Axis (the Zeon remenants), Haman is the one really in charge. Haman is actually one of Char's many ex-underage girlfriends (you gotta wonder about that guy...). Needless to say, their breakup wasn't amicable because Quattro really doesn't like her.
One notable absence from the cast list is Sayla Mass. She has all of about 10 seconds screen time in Zeta, and no dialogue at all. Quite a big step when you're the female lead in the previous series. Of coures, I did eventually find out the reason for this. At the time Zeta was being produced, Sayla's seiyu was on safari in Africa. This leads me to believe that Amuro's eventual love interest in Zeta, Beltorchika Irma, was originally supposed to have been Sayla, but the part was rewritten when they couldn't get Sayla's seiyu back.
Visually, just like the original, Zeta really stands out, especially considering it's age. At over 20 years old (made in 1985) I don't think you could ask for better. As good as everything was in the original for it's time, Zeta gets even better. The animation is as smooth as every, but the designs took a huge leap forward. The easiest example is going from the absolutely ugly RX-78 Gundam to the RX-178 Gundam Mk.II, probably the best looking Gundam ever.
The sound took a big step forward from the original series. The intro and ending are both a lot better. I was also very happy with all the voice acting this time around. Sure, none of the English VAs from the original were back for this one, but, when you consider that most of the main characters were just kids in the original, giving them older sounding voices isn't really a bad thing.
Interestingly, I have the Perfect Collection Box Set, and there are no extras on the discs, but there is an included 46 page booklet that contains all the extras you'd usually find on Gundam discs (ie: MS Encyclopedia, character profiles) and more. Honestly, I think I like this better, I can flip through the book whenever I want, no matter where in the show I am, no matter what disc I'm on, all information is available to me.
A few things, first, as per usual, my favorite mobile suit is a non-Gundam. IMO, the Rick Dias is the best looking machine of the lot. However, in total surprising fasion, the RX-178 Gundam Mk.II is probably my second favorite suit, and it is, by far, my favoirte actual Gundam from any series. It has a certain bulk to it I like. Not like the RX-78 that looked bulky because it looked like it was made from a bunch of cardboard boxes, but bluky in a way that makes it look like a tough machine. The easiest contrast is with the Zeta (which I don't like) that has this frail, delicate look to it, like a good stiff breeze might snap a limb off.
Next, Zeta is the first Gundam series to spawn a direct sequel series (actually, a second season), Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ (said Double Zeta). Apparently, it was a complete flop. It was intended to bridge the gap between Zeta and the Char's Counterattack movie. Now *SPOILER*since all the main characters die or become vegetables in Zeta*/SPOILER* there's a completely new cast of characters. Also, it apparently tried to keep Zeta's serious tone, but wound up turning into a really bad comedy. I haven't seen it since it's never been released in North America, and I doubt it ever will be based on every single review it got. I do, however, have a fansubbed version, and maybe I'll get around to watching it one of these days.
Finally, like the original series, Zeta recieved the movie treatment. However, where the original received some rewrites to make everything make sense again after cutting a bunch of stuff out, the Zeta movies actually received such a major story overhaul that it no longer fits into the official Universal Century time line and should be considered a parallel story. It also received a full title, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam: A New Translation. No, this does not mean it's just a new English translation, it's meant to express just how much of the story changed. In the end, the Zeta TV series is still considered the official storyline since the movie would effectively remove Double Zeta and Char's Counterattack from the continuity. I'm having a tough time confirming if it was released in North America or not, because I would like to see it purely for the new ending *SPOILER*where Kamille comes through it okay*/SPOILER* and because the whole thing was digitally remastered, and, from all the screen shots, looks really really good.