Nyssa was played with great subtlety, innocence and sensitivity by British actor Sarah Sutton. Nyssa was one of the most criminally underused and underrated companions in the history of the series. The things that were so wonderful about the character Nyssa were also sources of frustration for me and many other Nyssa fans around the world as well as Sutton herself. Nyssa had everything going for her from a narrative standpoint yet writers and show producers seemed to have no clue what to do with her. Her character was steeped in tragedy. She was born into an aristocratic family, a princess in all but name from the planet Traken. She was a genius who specialized in biomechanics. Her stepmother and father were both killed by one of the Doctor’s greatest enemies, The Master.
The relationship between the fifth Doctor and Nyssa was a paternal one. She was very young, much like the second Doctor’s companion Zoe, although without Zoe’s arrogance. The crew of the Tardis at that time consisted of sassy and outspoken stewardess Tegan, the young and perpetually questioning and curious mathematical genius Adric and the pawn of the Black Guardian turned friend, Turlough (who joined the crew after the death of Adric). It was very much a family vibe and, in a way, it sort of resembled the family dynamic of Lost In Space. The Doctor was Dr. Robinson, Adric was Will Robinson, Nyssa was Penny and Turlough(pictured below) was somewhat like Dr. Smith in that he started as an enemy and often put his own agenda before the lives of the others. Tegan was an aggressive Judy Robinson. Like the crew of Lost in Space, the crew of the Tardis even traveled with a robot by the name of Kamelion(above right). It was probably the largest entourage in Doctor Who history.
However, as with any large family, there are those children who tend to get lost in the shuffle. Nyssa was like the middle child of the family that often is never shown the attention that the oldest and youngest children are afforded. In light of her family and planet being destroyed, the Doctor and Tegan were the closest things to family that Nyssa had. Tegan was like an older sister to Nyssa. Nyssa, because of her age and peaceful, idyllic life on Traken, tended to be a bit naïve. Tegan often had to chide her for being a bit too trusting in people. But that was the charm of Nyssa as played by Sutton. Nyssa had every reason to be angry and bitter and vengeful yet she was none of those things. She was smart and kind and generous, often taking the role of peacemaker in the many arguments between the Doctor, Tegan and Adric. Nyssa was the responsible one. When Nyssa finally departed from the Doctor’s life, she did so as the result of a courageous act of self sacrifice.
Nyssa’s final appearance was in the episode Terminus, in which the evil Black Guardian manipulates Turlough into sabotaging the Tardis, forcing it to land on a spaceship full of people suffering from the fatal, leprosy type disease known as “Lazars”, all heading for a space station at the center of the universe called Terminus. Terminus supposedly has a cure for lazars but it seems that those who run Terminus are gone and the few employees and guards that are left are the only ones getting the cure. Nyssa becomes infected with the disease but is exposed to radiation by a slave creature called the Garm. The radiation cures Nyssa but the treatment is a dangerous and unreliable one, often killing instead of curing.
Meanwhile, the Doctor discovers that the remaining fuel tank that powers Terminus is becoming unstable and threatens to destroy them all. At this point, since I’m writing about Nyssa, I won’t go into too much plot detail here. I’ll just say that, long story short, the Doctor prevents the space station from exploding. However, there is still a whole bunch of lepers and no one with knowledge to help them. This is where Nyssa steps up and, once again, shows true courage. In a heartbreaking act of self sacrifice, Nyssa offers to stay behind and help synthesize a new, safe cure for the stations dying inhabitants, a project that could take years. In return, the remaining employees of Terminus Inc. will turn the space station into a hospital for the thousands of lepers who still need help. The Doctor is clearly dismayed by Nyssa’s decision and Tegan is sure that her friend will die if she stays. But Nyssa firmly tells her friends that it’s her decision and that it is an opportunity to use her special knowledge and scientific genius to help others.
It’s an amazing show of strength by the character, made all the more glaring and poignant in light of how underused the character had been throughout the series. Even the Doctor displays a deep sadness and sense of regret. We can see it in his face that he feels bad that he never spent more time with this amazing, giving, kind and brave young woman. Nyssa had had so much tragedy in her life, much of which was the result, indirectly, of having known the Doctor and by association, an enemy that had taken away her family, planet and the only life that she had ever known. We see the burden of that guilt in the Doctors face as Nyssa kisses him goodbye. It’s a scene that still packs an emotional punch when watched today.
In a 2011 interview with Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding (Tegan), the actors reflect on how they envy the current crop of companions in the new Doctor Who series. Characters like Rose Tyler, Donna Noble, Martha Jones, River Song, Amy Pond have all had great, complex stories that spend much more time exploring who they are as people. When Sutton and Fielding discuss this, you can hear a bit of sadness that writers now are spending much more time on the characters than, by comparison, was ever spent on Tegan and Nyssa. I mean, think about it. A sassy, present day stewardess whose only relative was killed and an alien princess whose family and planet was destroyed by that same killer, both women becoming friends and giving each other something to fill the void of loss that both share. This is wonderfully fertile narrative ground. Yet this relationship and particularly the character of Nyssa was hardly ever explored. It’s a testament to Nyssa as well as to the acting talents of Sarah Sutton, that Nyssa was so likable and able to shine through in spite of the limits put on the character.
The fate of Nyssa is just one example of why stories from the Peter Davison years are some of my favorites. Beginning with Peter Davison, the Doctor was no longer infallible. He was young, he made mistakes that cost lives, mistakes that he took to heart and often had difficulty bouncing back from. The majority of his companions left under less than ideal situations. Nyssa left the doctor to spend her life on a plague ship in order help others. Adric died. Tegan left because she could no longer handle all the deaths that were becoming increasingly frequent in her adventures with the Doctor. Even the Doctor's regeneration was brought about by an act of self sacrifice in order to keep yet another companion from dying. Not a difficult choice for the Doctor. The early years of the 80s were indeed sad ones for the Doctor and his companions.