For many people, Dalek is the jewel in the crown of Christopher Eccleston’s run as the Doctor. It is undeniably excellent, and involves some of Eccleston’s very best moments. It’s also very simple, as all the best early stories tend to be. The Doctor and Rose land in Utah 2012 (the near future!) in the underground alien museum of American businessman Henry Van Staten. They’re following a distress call, and soon find out that call is coming from a lone Dalek – the last Dalek, as far as the Doctor knows. When it breaks loose from its cage, it is a race against time to convince Van Staten how dangerous it is before it can get out of the base.
Of course, the plot is not important here. This is a face off between a Doctor who is traumatised by the Time War and the enemy he was sure he’d seen the last of. When he first realises that Van Staten’s prisoner is a Dalek, the Doctor’s first instinct is to run, pounding on the locked door and begging to be let out of the cage. There are very few moments of genuine fear from any Doctor, so this is a big deal. Remember that for many young viewers, this episode was their very first introduction to the Daleks. To see the Doctor so scared gives a strong impression of how these aliens should make us feel.
After that, the episode’s very best moments come in the conversation that volleys between the Doctor and the Dalek. The Dalek doesn’t know it is alone in the universe. It doesn’t know that no one is coming to save them. The Dalek’s hopelessness is a perfect reflection of the Doctor’s. There is such a fine line between them that at times they are the same – the Dalek tells the Doctor he’d be a good Dalek because of his hatred, a hatred no less intense than the Dalek’s own.
We know and trust the Doctor by the time we’ve got to this episode, but the Dalek makes him act in ways we are unused to. He really does shut Rose in with the escaped Dalek, because she wasn’t quick enough. I don’t think I ever really processed the callousness of that decision before, definitely not when I was younger. But without a second thought, the Doctor who is haunted by his actions in the Time War makes the same choice again – he is sacrificing her to save everyone else. In that moment, we see a glimpse of the man who pressed that button to end the war, and we do not know him. His small redemption this time, of course, is that Rose’s compassion has mutated the Dalek just enough that it can’t kill her. And, similarly, her compassion is also what stops the Doctor killing the Dalek too.
Watching this episode back, and seeing how brilliantly the Doctor is forced to start to work through his issues, it actually made me a bit sad. Because we know now that this is not the last Dalek. Not by a long shot. The Daleks will be back, first at the end of series one and then fairly reliably in every series of new Who after that. The Doctor’s growth here ends up not meaning much, because although this Dalek makes him think twice about the nature of the beast, basically every other Dalek will just be the same old murder machine that we know and hate. They just go back to being that fun but predictable enemy. It seems like a big thing, and hard to enforce between show runners, but I think it would have been brilliant if this episode really was the last appearance of the Daleks. If the Dalek really had been the last one, and the Doctor had the chance to start letting go of the horror and the trauma of the war. It could have been justified – the Daleks were iconic, but new Who could have struck out and created its own big bad, and this episode, this last face off, could have marked the true passing of the baton, from old to new.
If anything puts a stain on an almost perfect episode, it is the knowledge now that the Daleks were only just getting started. And, unfortunately, that just cheapens the whole thing a little bit.
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