I am anything but an expert on the Hartnell years, and I'll admit I approached this story with some hesitation, having recently been (very) disappointed by the dishwater-dull 'Dalek Invasion of Earth.' But I was actually pleasantly surprised (and sometimes delighted) by 'The Daleks' it's a stylish and moody piece of television, full of memorable moments and challenging ideas. As a product of its time, it's undeniably pokey, of course, and will seem a bit padded to the uninitiated (the 'bacon and eggs' scene, e.g., is one I could have done without). Probably its biggest problem, of course, is the abrupt conclusion, where, as in the next Dalek story, the fearsome cyborg monstrosities are ultimately defeated by three or four unarmed men rushing up to them and pushing them over. It's a serious disappointment, but it can't undo the many successes of the story, and overall 'The Daleks' is consistently entertaining, a fitting debut for the Doctor's legendary enemies.
One of the best things the story does from the very outset is to convey Ian and Barbara's continuing shock at what has happened to them, and their doubts about whether the Doctor can actually get them home at all. William Russell and Jacqueline Hill play their anger and fear quite convincingly in the opening scenes, and truly, the series might not depict the disorienting shock of space and time travel so well again until the Ninth Doctor picks up Rose, more than forty years later. (And, as with Rose, the characters of Ian and Barbara are used as a lens through which we see not only the reality of time travel, but the strange and alien Doctor as well.)
Once the story gets going, there are many moments that stand out as genuine classics, of course. Such examples as the mutant's claw creeping out from under the blanket and the first cliffhanger with Barbara are rightly singled out by fans, but for me the most seminal moment is the exchange after the Daleks reveal their plan to wipe out the Thals. When the Doctor incredulously fumes "That's sheer murder!" and the Dalek responds: "NO EXTERMINATION," it's a chilling moment that spins out over the course of this series we see how clearly different the Daleks' worldview is from the Doctor's (and ours), but we also see his mind working, and understand how his first encounter with his oldest enemies helped form the righteous indignation that would guide the character through the rest of this series. As for William Hartnell's performance itself, he stumbles once or twice in Episode One, but in general he's in terrific form. The First Doctor here is a fascinating character study he's admittedly old and tired (Susan even apologizes to Ian and Barbara for his forgetfulness), but he also shows a surprising energy, driven, it seems, by his intellectual curiosity. He's hardly a superhero, or even much of a hero at all: indeed, he's selfish and scheming when tricking the TARDIS crew into accompanying him to the mysterious city, and harsh and cold when suggesting he'll leave Ian and Barbara on Skaro, or insisting that they use the Thals as cannon fodder for the Daleks so they can escape. But, as I said, he's increasingly moral and humane too, and of course he's quite funny in such scenes as his argument with Ian in Episode One.
As for Ian, the treatment of his character is rather dated - he comes off as a bit bossy, and more than a bit sexist, when he refuses to believe either woman alone could (or should?) be trusted with the drug-retrieving mission in Episode Two, or when he sends Barbara and Susan out of the room so that the men-folk can deal with the Dalek mutant. (Gee whiz, Dad . . . .) But Barbara comes off rather better, showing imagination and independence here, and acting as a great stand-in for the viewer when wandering alone in the frightening city in Episode One. Another writer once pointed out that a 'mature' female companion like Barbara wouldn't really be seen again in this series; it's true, and it's too bad. If only you could say the same thing for Susan, whose shrieking and sobbing here provide a sad precedent for many girl companions to come . . . .
As for the non-regular characters, Mark Campbell has notably criticized the treatment of the Thals, summing up 'The Daleks' as "a questionable morality tale whereby 'ugly = bad' and 'pretty = good,'" and it is a legitimate point. In particular, the way in which Susan and the rest of the TARDIS crew instinctively trust the Thals simply because they're well-formed physically is annoying. But in all fairness, there's more to the story's philosophy than that after all, the beauty of the Thals is less linked with their 'goodness' than with their pacifism, which it should be remembered is *criticized* by the script (however respectfully). The individual Thals are rather blandly characterized, and the overtly philosophical dialogue is occasionally heavy-handed (Terry Nation seems more interested in giving them symbolic things to *do* than believable things to *say*). Still, one has to admire the seriousness with which the theme is approached especially in the context of a fledgling children's TV show!
And then there is the presentation of the Daleks themselves, of course. The physical travel machines work well the image of a Dalek is one so familiar to us that it's worth reminding ourselves how strange and alien Raymond Cusick's design actually is. In a series known for passing off stuntmen in rubber masks as aliens, it's wonderful to see such a convincingly alien concept - there's absolutely nothing recognizably human about a Dalek. It's astonishing that Sydney Newman responded so poorly to such an original idea, in fact. The dilating eye is particularly disturbing (one wonders, actually, why Russell T. Davies didn't return to it with the Eccleston series), the machines glide rather quickly and smoothly, and even small touches like the Daleks passing a sheet of paper from one sucker arm to another is surprisingly impressive.
As for their characterization, at this point, Terry Nation had not yet developed the arsenal of Dalek dialogue 'chestnuts' that he and other writers would use (and overuse) through the years ("I OBEY," "STAY WHERE YOU ARE DO NOT MOVE," etc.); nevertheless, the Daleks make a tremendous impact in their voice and speech here. They are harsh and intimidating, certainly, in such scenes as the one where they force Susan to write her note, but rather than simply screeching slogans as they do in later stories like the overrated 'Remembrance,' these Daleks actually *think* as well, and demonstrate much personality. They are paranoid, interrupting and challenging even each other, and jittery, as when the guard Dalek orders the prisoners to move away from the sides of the door. They also show much evidence of their cunning and scientific approach, spying on their prisoners and analyzing their conversations (they are not for an instant fooled by the silly 'fight' the TARDIS crew use to disconnect their camera). Significantly, their intellects are shown to be as impenetrable as their armor even the Doctor can't outtalk them (when he tries to stall them by telling them about the TARDIS, they are interested, but have no doubt they'll be able to comprehend its technology themselves after his death). And they are resourceful problem-solvers too, quickly burning through the blocked door, and conducting immediate experiments to determine the effects of the Thal drugs (and, just as quickly, learning how to counter them). But perhaps the most surprising thing about their characterization here is how *sad* these Daleks are for one of the most notable things the story does is expose the Big Lie of Dalek superiority. After all, the first thing the Daleks do with the Thals' anti-radiation drugs is try to *cure* themselves, to rid themselves of their 'Dalek-ness.' It is only when the drugs fail, and they are left with no other choice, that they rationalize their compromised form, and convince themselves that their weakness is in fact the key to ultimate strength.
Just about every other aesthetic element of the story satisfies. The Dalek city is beautifully designed, and looks all the scarier and more distorted for being in black and white. The whirlpool in Episode Five is very impressive for the time, and the script does a good job of sprinkling its thematic content throughout a 'Lord of the Rings'-esque quest adventure. Finally, the seemingly intentional double entendre "Now there's a double meaning for you" is a shockingly risqué line. I gasped when I heard it . . . and I'm not easily shocked.