Before we even get into the story proper, let me first of all say that this particular episode is, if nothing else, a brilliant piece of marketting. "Dalekmania", although now 40 years old, will always be an integral part of the success of the show. And Russell T. Davis knew exactly how to inject that formulae back into the new series.
Let's be honest, within seconds after hearing that the show was coming back on the air, the next thought that most fans had was: "I wonder when we'll see the Daleks". There wasn't even a notion of whether or not the Daleks would return - we knew they had to be there somewhere for the Doctor to run into or it just wouldn't be Doctor Who. And RTD, like all good producers, recognised that timing would be everything in the way these monsters would be re-introduced. And his timing was immaculate. Not only in terms of which episode(s) he chose to feature the Daleks in, but also the way in which they were featured.
"Dalek" succeeds best in this way because it features just a single Dalek. A smart way to re-introduce them to the series. For old fans, we get to learn some of the new nuances of the Daleks. And for the newbies, they just get to learn about Daleks, in general. To have an entire army of them roll in would've made this process far more complicated. But with just a single Dalek trundling around, we really get a chance to get up close and personal with him.
But, marketting aside, does the story live up to the hype?
There are some very "classic" moments to this story but I wouldn't quite call this a classic. It's missing a few things in order to truly achieve that status. If nothing else, the plot is just a tad too streamlined. While I can appreciate a story like "Rose" being so simple in its plotting because it was the first episode of the new series, "Dalek" is now five episodes into the season. I could've used a bit more meat to my plot than just: "A Dalek's breaking out and it's going to spend the next 45 minutes killing everyone and then killing itself cause it went a little crazy from absorbing Rose's DNA."
Now, don't get me wrong, I do recognise that there is a bit more substance to this story than just that. We have Van Statten's egotism, some integral revelations about the Time Wars and Adam getting it on with Rose but these are all far too minor to really become legitimate plot threads. So, even though we've got some nice underscoring and subtext going on, we're still left with "A Dalek breaks out and is going to spend the next 45 minutes killing everyone and then killing itself cause it went a little crazy from absorbing Rose's DNA"! And that, in my book, is enough of a flaw to get it to not quite achieve "classic" status.
Still, this is a very strong story, overall. In many ways, it's superb. The conflict between the Doctor and his greatest enemy has never been so well portrayed. For the chief reason that the battle between Dalek and Time Lord is now deeply personal because of what occurred in the Time Wars. And it makes for excellent drama to watch. Particularly when you consider that one of the two combatants is really just a working prop!
Of course, this conflict is best displayed in the notorious scene when the two of combatants first meet. Eccleston turns in his best performance of the season here. His horror and dismay and then sheer fanaticism are all very compelling. And the way the Dalek actually plays off of him (even though, again, he really is just a working prop) gets this whole scene to shine brightly in the memories of both old fans and new viewers. It's everything we expected the confrontation to be between these two - and more.
It's also quite interesting to see what they had done with this latest model of Dalek. Some really cool new "special features" have been added to them: rotating gun turrets and bullet force-fields and the like. This is obviously the Dalek at its ultimate form of evolution. Which seems quite sensible. It would be at this stage that they would decide they are perfect and take on the ultimate enemy in the greatest war they would ever face. It all jibes with continuity quite nicely in my book. And that's always a nice thing for a fan to see in a story!
I'm also quite impressed with how deeply the story delves into "the Dalek philosophy". It really takes the time to not just show us how nasty these aliens are, but also explain why they are so nasty. So that, at the end, when the Dalek commits suicide, we understand why. It could never stand being anything but a pure killing machine and therefore needed to destroy itself when it realised it had been corrupted. This conclusion makes sense rather than being just a cheap cop-out.
There are several other really nice touches to this story. The Doctor coming to terms with his obcessive hatred is nicely achieved. And the destruction of Van Statten is also great stuff. I even quite liked the vague reference made to Davros. But, in the end, I still feel that the two final episodes of the season were better Dalek stories. And the all-time best Dalek story, for my money, is still "Remembrance of the Daleks" - even if the title is a tad goofy! Still, "Dalek" does an excellent job of bringing this evil intergalactic conqueror back into Whoniverse - I just can't quite call it the "classic" some of you are claiming it to be.
It's pretty damned awesome - but not a classic!