Aired 30 April 2005
The Daleks are an institution, a phenomenon that managed to transcend Doctor Who itself during the early years of the programme and that have remained firmly int the popular consciousness ever since. With the aptly-titled ‘Dalek,’ the Doctor’s most iconic foe makes the leap to the modern series to once more wreak havoc and to instill fear into a whole new generation of fans as a deadly menace with no morals or feelings whatsoever. In that sense, ‘Dalek’ is a bit of an odd choice since there is only one single Dalek and it ends up showing the most emotion and character of any Dalek in the show’s long history; however, by the time the end credits roll, it has also proven itself to be one of the most effective explorations of the Dalek consciousness as well.
In a bold move, the Dalek presented is a helpless prisoner, held captive by Henry Van Statten as the crown jewel of his extraterrestrial collection. Seeing a Dalek so helpless and so easily tortured by Van Statten’s staff is quite shocking, but it’s not until Van Statten sends the Doctor in to interrogate the creature that the episode really ascends to another level. Suddenly, instead of the expected and traditional power struggle, an actual discussion takes place. Both get their fair share of taunts in, the recharged Ninth Doctor surprisingly giving more than he takes, but the dialogue from both parties is brutally honest about what it means to be the sole survivors of the brutal Time War after everything they had experience. Considering the monotone voice modulation that encapsulates the Dalek’s voice, actor Nicholas Briggs does a fantastic job in portraying a sense of both empathy and sadness into the sparkling dialogue, and Christopher Eccleston is just as powerful on the other end, easily giving his most emotional performance to date. In the process, Rose and the audience gain a greater understanding of who this Doctor is as well as gain an insight into the Dalek mind that Davros could never achieve.
Yet the Dalek race has proven time and time again to be remorseless strategists, and that clearly comes across as the captured Dalek takes advantage of Rose’s sympathy for its plight. After bemoaning that it would gladly welcome death and that it is glad to have met a human unafraid of it, Rose’s DNA and time travel energy cause its regeneration, allowing it to brazenly kill a guard and break free of its chains. Later on, surrounded by a host of armed guards, the Dalek proves its intelligence by activating the sprinkler system and electrocuting them all at once, definitively showcasing how dangerous this foe can be even on an individual basis and not solely in the larger forces in which Daleks are normally shown.
Just as the script seems to be taking a rather linear and predictable path, though, everything suddenly gets flipped as the Dalek begins to experience human emotions due to the aspects of humanity Rose also inadvertently gave it. This is completely foreign to any Dalek, and so suddenly having to cope with confusion, loneliness, and despair is a sentence much worse than death, leaving it with self-destruction as the only logical recourse. It’s hard to make a Dalek a sympathetic figure, but the dialogue and direction manage to pull this off rather effectively.
Understandably, though, it’s the Doctor himself who is going to be the talking point of this episode. Forced into the cell alone with the Dalek, his terror turns into borderline psychosis when he realizes that his foe is initially completely powerless. There has certainly always been an air of cruelty to the character, more pronounced in some incarnations than others, but he is so absolutely blinded by sheer hatred and the need for revenge for the events of the Time War that it’s hard to argue with the Dalek’s argument that the Doctor would make a good Dalek in this state. This conversation is mirrored nicely at the end of the story when Rose asks what the Doctor is turning into when he is still convinced that the Dalek must be killed at all costs because of his personal history. Rose is the character who, purposefully or not, is able to get through to both of these ages-old foes, and she proves once more that she is unafraid to stand up to the Doctor even if she doesn’t fully understand the situation at hand.
Director Joe Ahearne deserves full credit for excellently bringing this character-driven and action-packed story to life, slow-motion effects and unique camera angles showcasing the Dalek in particular. The guest cast is suitably strong as well, notably with Corey Johnson able to seamlessly portray Van Statten’s gleeful overconfidence and eventually sheer panic perfectly. Anna-Louise Plowman also deserves praise as the confident second-in-command Goddard, who gets her own moment of glory at the end by ordering a memory wipe of Van Statten for his negligence and incompetence. Bruno Langley’s genius Adam Mitchell is going to be a bit of a contentious point at this time, though; he certainly proved his mettle during the events despite some missteps, but at this time he’s simply not developed enough to prove that he will be worth the investment as a recurring character now that he has been offered another journey in the TARDIS.
In the end, though, ‘Dalek’ is a spectacular episode of Doctor Who and a triumphant return of the Daleks to screen after such a long hiatus. It may not be the most traditional Dalek threat, but enough of a foundation is set that the overall threat cannot possibly be underestimated in any future story. There are some fluctuations in tone throughout, but Robert Shearman has crafted the first truly excellent episode of the modern era.