You can tell tell the quality of an actor by putting them into a room with a puppet and watching them act out an impassioned scene. Without a doubt, the most memorable performance of Christopher Eccleston’s short stint as the Doctor comes from this episode, as he faces down the last of his old foes, a single Dalek soldier. Compassion turns to fear, fear turns to delight and then rage and disgust. I used to find Eccleston a little unpredictable and scatty as the Doctor, but it’s understandable, as he shows every side of the character within the space of a minute.
It was important to bring in new fans, who may not have known the history of the Daleks, but also appeal to the long-term viewers. The “time war” idea was a great way to wipe the slate clean and reset expectations, but I can’t help think that the reveal of the Dalek would have been more of a shock had they not spoiled it in the previous episode’s preview, or indeed in the name of the bloody episode!
Nevertheless, the intention was to make the Daleks threatening again for the 21st century, and this succeeds where more overblown efforts have failed. An army of Daleks invading Earth doesn’t have the same impact as knowing that just one rogue Dalek could single-plungedly wipe out millions of people itself, even if you don’t see it happen. Oh, this revised Dalek soldier is formidable on-screen, sure, but it’s the warning of what it might do, the terror in the Doctor’s eyes, that sells the threat.
That the Dalek ultimately destroys itself, having been “contaminated” with Rose’s emotions, is perhaps the best end for the Dalek saga one could hope for. In the space of 45 minutes, we go from fear to pity, as this pulsating blob of a thing finally sets himself free, and the Doctor is brought back from the brink of becoming a monster himself. If this were the last ever appearance of the Daleks, it would have been a spectacular ending for them. Unfortunately, they were dragged back kicking and screaming before the first series was even over. A missed opportunity, but not one for which I can blame this episode.
While this is one of the best ever portrayals of the Daleks, the rest of the episode is merely okay. The idea of the alien museum is interesting (old-school Cyberman head!) but the characters fall flat or come across as silly, especially van Statten firing people for ridiculous things and having their memories wiped (this might have seemed plausibly futuristic at the time, but the episode’s setting of 2012 is now the past!). New tag-along Adam is so bland a character, I actually forgot he was even in this series. He claims to be a genius, but demonstrates no such quality just yet. He and Rose flirting seems inappropriate, given she only left Mickey waiting in the previous episode. Still, anything to shake up the status quo is fine by me.