This is the story I wanted to see ever since I read about it, and the only one I couldn't resist spoilers on. I went and read reviews by fellow fans months ago, as well as watching the Doctor Who Confidential episode covering this story over my dial-up internet connection (a chore, to be sure). Having finally seen the episode itself, I have to say that the oldest enemy of the Doctor was redesigned and reinvented very well in my opinion.
The story itself is not bad. It's not a deep plot but it works, and writer Rob Shearman relies on the Doctor's history with the Daleks for much of its emotional impact and drama. It boils down to this: Dalek falls to Earth, is ultimately bought by Van Statten and put in the cage, until the Doctor arrives. Doctor and Dalek shout at each other, Dalek tricks Rose and escapes, slaughtering hundreds in the process. Genetically contaminated by Rose, the Dalek chooses suidcide. Fine and dandy, but I wish the one event on which the plot turns, the absorption of Rose's DNA by the Dalek, had been explained in more detail. What was it about her DNA that allowed the Dalek to recharge and escape? We're merely told that the fact that she's a time traveller allows the Dalek's renewal, with no further explanation. Of course, the answer is that the concept makes no sense, and that the writer didn't even try to make up some technobabble to explain it, which is disappointing.
The Dalek itself is wonderfully updated. It's still the same old basic design we've seen since 1963 (thank goodness) but with a few tweaks here and there. The dome with rivets and panels looks good, along with the larger "eye" lamps. The eyepiece with what is presumably the Dalek's designation underneath is a very good update, giving the faceless Dalek some individuality at last. The bronze-metallic overall finish works very well and gives more of an impression that the travel machine is made of metal than previous Dalek props have done. The force shield, levitation and the rotating midsection are just icing on the cake, really making this Dalek the threat that it should always have been. Last but not least is the depiction of the mutant inside, which takes elements from the old Raymond Cusick sketch with it's exposed brain, along with the tentacled Dalek creatures we've seen over the course of the old series. The redesign is nigh-on picture perfect.
As for the Dalek's character, it's quite accurate as well. Emotional, manipulative, deceptive and murderous, the Dalek draws on both "Power of the Daleks" and "Evil of the Daleks" for characterization. Speaking of "Evil", lest we forget, this is not the first time we've seen a humanized Dalek. Unlike the ones in "Evil" who seemed to take in stride their new human emotions and ability to question, this one becomes very self-aware and chooses suicide over contamination". I almost felt sorry for the thing at the end of the episode, but considering how many people he murdered, it's hard not to see his condition and death as just desserts.
Moving along to characters other than the Dalek, there's villain number two, Henry Van Statten. The idea of an egomaniacal billionare who collects alien artifacts is a decent concept. However, Van Statten begins to fail as a character when other ideas are thrown into the mix. He owns the internet? Picks the next president? Invented broadband? Right. The character would have worked very well without these needless excesses. He is acted well enough I suppose.
Moving along, Goddard is a character who's barely there, and her sudden takeover at the end defies belief somewhat. Whose name is on the bank accounts? Though I suppose given that she had the support of the troops who were angry at Van Statten for letting so many of their fellow soldiers die, she might pull it off. Seems a shame that she wanted the museum destroyed at the end though. Adam comes across as a bit full of himself, but as someone who plans ahead a bit, given that he keeps some alien weapons stashed away just in case. Pity he couldn't have planned ahead a bit further next episode, eh? "Ithink I'll have this chip installed in my forehead..." Even the few soldiers who get lines get good ones. "Get the civilians out," one says. Nice to see that even though his boss is a ego-maniac, he takes his job seriously. Then of course there's the doomed soldier trying to hold the Dalek off on the stairway... a futile gesture and a wasted life.
It's hard not to sympathize with Rose in this episode. She doesn't know about the Daleks at this point, and doesn't realize just how terrible they are. Her compassion for the Dalek after she sees him being tortured is commendable, as are her attempts to stop him from killing Van Statten. Even though the Dalek has killed hundreds of people", as she sees it changing she tries to reason with it. There's a lot of nobility in her actions.
This ninth Doctor is a tough one to come to terms with. I accept that he's been traumatized by the war, and by losing his home and family, but even so it's hard to like him sometimes. A lot of the characteristics of past Doctors shine through, except for charm. He has very little of that, sadly. I did feel that his actions in this episode were spot on character though. He's afraid of the Daleks, he recognizes just how dangerous they are, he hates them for taking part in the destruction of the Time Lords, and when he takes the weapon to go and destroy the Dalek at the end of the episode, it's not the action of a man becoming what he hates. His action is more than justified, given what the Dalek has just done if nothing else. For all that the script tries to draw parallels between the Doctor and the Dalek, and make us feel pity for the Dalek, said parallels are surface level only. The Dalek kills because it is xenophobic, and to it all other life is wrong. The Doctor wants to kill the Dalek because of so many past experiences where all the Daleks do is bring death and destruction, and the Doctor's instinct is to protect innocents. There may well be some revenge in the Doctor's mind as well, which while wrong is both understandable and still a long way from the Dalek point of view. The two are not the same, and never will be, despite being the "last survivors" of their respective races.
Despite my defence of the Doctor here, I have to agree that he is angry, bitter and vengeful towards the helpless Dalek in the cell. It's unpleasant to watch, but he's right: what is a Dalek good for, if it can't kill? Having seen the Daleks kill every other member of his race (so far as he knows), I think we'd be hard-pressed to fault the Doctor for his verbal abuse of the Dalek. It is a commendable scene for another reason: not since the days of Hartnell and Troughton have we seen the actor who plays the Doctor taking the Daleks so seriously(with the possible exception of "Genesis"), and Eccleston's superb acting in this scene really does sell the idea that the Doctor hates and fears these creatures unlike any other. Already this season we've seen him attempt to reason with the Nestene and the Gelth, but his approach to the Dalek is vastly different. His hate is understandable, even if we wish he would rise above it.
Some nice touches to the episode include the Cyber-head from "Revenge of the Cybermen", and the mention of Davros (though not by name, just as the Daleks creator). Numerous Dalek-POV shots were nicely done as well. Some not-so-nice touches: the horribly cheesy line "what good are emotions if you will not save the woman you love?"
The final scene is touching. "I win" the Doctor says sadly. Do we really think Susan is gone, or Romana, or the Master? I tend to believe the Doctor isn't as alone as he thinks, but it may be a long time before any writer feels like bringing another Time Lord back into the mix.
In short, the plot is functional and advances the Time War story. The episode serves to reintroduce and amplify the Daleks as the ultimate Doctor Who adversaries. It's the Dalek and the history behind it that makes this episode work dramatically. No other monster or enemy has the same effect on the Doctor. "Dalek" is not a classic, but it is a strong episode.