Doctor Who’s New Year special “Resolution” may have thrilled audiences with the return of the Doctor’s arch-enemies, but “Dalek” still stands as the best Dalek-centric episode of the modern era.
The dreaded Daleks are as integral to Doctor Who – and as iconic – as the TARDIS and the sonic screwdriver. It’s a testament to the show’s writing and innovative flair that a relatively low-budget creation like the Daleks could instil such fear in its audience. Thanks to the efforts of show-runner Russell T. Davies, director Joe Ahearne and writer Robert Shearman, the potential of this alien cyborg race was realised once again in the Ninth Doctor's (Christopher Eccleston) debut season in 2005.
“Dalek” sees the Doctor and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) arriving in an underground bunker in Utah, in the year 2012. The facility is owned by odious billionaire Henry van Statten (Corey Johnson), who has filled it with alien artefacts, including one mysterious living specimen. The Doctor is horrified when he soon discovers the creature’s identity, and he is all but powerless to stop it when it breaks free. Admittedly, this episode would undoubtedly have had more of an impact if the Dalek had been a closely guarded reveal (and not given away by the title). Nonetheless, the Doctor’s greatest foes are shrewdly handled in “Dalek”, and they have rarely been as compelling as they are here.
When Doctor Who was rebooted, it marked forty years since the Daleks' television debut – and over fifteen since their last appearance. Because of this time difference, bringing the Daleks back was a tricky prospect. After all, their pepper pot shape and sink-plunger appendages had been ridiculed in the past. Moreover, even though "Remembrance of the Daleks" had established that they could climb staircases, general audiences still believed that these quaint and uncomplicated antagonists could be foiled by multilevel buildings. Aherne and Shearman seem aware of these preconceptions, and do everything they can to address them throughout the episode.
One of the main reasons why “Dalek” works so well is because it recontextualizes these aliens in a minimalist, claustrophobic setting and plot. Long-time fans may have been upset that many aspects of this species – such as their various classes and their creator, Davros – are only alluded to in the episode. But by honing in on one Dalek and its merciless, totalitarian nature, “Dalek” conveys the full extent of their terrifying capabilities. Indeed, as more and more groups of human soldiers are swiftly exterminated by a singular Dalek, we get a feel of just how dangerous this creature is. The sight of an airborne, CGI Dalek pursuing Rose and newcomer Adam (Bruno Langley) up a stairwell proved to be a similarly heart-stopping moment for new and casual fans. Therefore, when “Bad Wolf” and “The Parting of the Ways” introduce hordes of these beings, the audience experiences an increased sense of dread.
This foreboding is also helped by Russell T. Davies’ resetting of the show’s status quo. When Doctor Who returned, the rebooted series picked up after the Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords. Referred to in hallowed, mournful tones, the Time War compounded the hero’s mysterious aura, and that of the Daleks as well. When the Doctor discusses the brutality and horror of the war with the titular Dalek, these villains are granted the same weight – and history – as their mortal foe.
Indeed, "Dalek" scrutinizes the dynamics between the Doctor and his long-time opponents in a fresh and interesting way. As the Dalek is exposed to new ideas and sensations, the audience witnesses the Doctor become riddled with anger. It's fascinating to watch the characters essentially start switching places, and the talented cast sink their teeth into this rich material. Billie Piper excels as the episode's moral center. But fans will rightly remember "Dalek" for Christopher Eccleston’s brilliant performance, especially in his confrontations with the Dalek itself.
In their first meeting, Eccleston portrays the regret, the fear, and most importantly the fury of the Time Lord so well that it's no wonder the Dalek recoils at the Doctor’s rage. This exchange, coupled with the alien's later observation that the Doctor would make a good Dalek himself, is one of the most impactful sequences in the refreshed series. Certainly, it’s the kind of raw intensity that is rarely seen within the show. For that very reason, the Ninth Doctor's first conversation with the Dalek still stands as one of Doctor Who’s best ever scenes.
Moreover, the influence of “Dalek” can be felt to this day. The episode established the Daleks’ standing within the rebooted show along with their revamped look, which became so popular that fans balked when showrunner Steven Moffat attempted to give them a makeover in 2010. But Moffat also attempted to combat the fatigue that had settled upon these villains by the time of his tenure. 2012 saw "Asylum of the Daleks" foreground their formidable nature once again, with sinister Dalek sleeper agents and a similarly confined setting. Indeed, even "Resolution" mimics the minimal use of a redesigned reconnaissance Dalek.
As brilliant as these adventures are though, they seem unable to match the simplicity – or the poignancy – of “Dalek”. Many amazing moments – such as the Cult of Skaro’s hilarious first meeting with the Cybermen – wouldn't have been possible without the groundwork of this 2005 episode. In turn, “Dalek” may not climb to the lofty heights of many classic era instalments, yet it still nimbly interrogates the nature of mercy and vengeance – right and wrong – that Doctor Who has always explored. It’s a meaty and powerful examination of the Doctor’s greatest rivalry. Plus, its chilling depiction of Dalek principles and warfare showcase why the Daleks have become the kind of iconic villains that will endure for generations to come.