I love Nyssa. I’ve always loved Nyssa. Lots of people don’t, and that makes me sad. It doesn’t usually make me sad when people don’t like companions (or even Doctors) I love. Why does this? Because Nyssa is me. More than any other companion ever, Nyssa reflects who I was as a young girl. There were plenty of other companions I wanted to be (Sarah Jane, Romana, even Leela), but Nyssa genuinely reflected me. It’s taken a couple of decades, but I’ve finally come to realize that that was a pretty great thing.
Note that, at the time, I didn’t see myself as Nyssa. I just liked her because I liked her. I think as little kids we don’t think too much about why we like things. They’re just neat. Leave it to the stodgy adults to dissect stuff until it barely means anything.*
So anyway, I thought Nyssa was neato. I still do. Now I’ve thought about why. In breaking it down, I can now clearly see that the things I did and do appreciate about her are facets and reflections of myself—perhaps more at that age than at present, but there’s still a lot of her in me.
Nyssa is smart. There’s no question about it. Nyssa knows her stuff. She can communicate with the Doctor—much of the time on his own level. In some ways she’s a spiritual successor to Zoe. She doesn’t quite have Zoe’s panache or bravado or spunk, but she’s got the brains for sure. Adric’s a bit of a genius too (as he never lets us forget), but Nyssa’s genius extends beyond the realm of numbers. She’s able to *do* things with her intelligence. Which brings me to the next in the list of her outstanding qualities.
Nyssa is capable. Some smarty pantses wander around in a daze of their own brilliance. Nyssa’s knowledge has a great down-to-earth component. She has skills and she puts them to use. In “The Visitation”, the Doctor trusts her to build a sonic booster. He simply tells her what he needs, and off she pops to take care of it. Which leads me to the fact that…
Nyssa is self-reliant. While most people see Nyssa’s storyline (or lack thereof) in “The Visitation” as an example of Eric Saward relegating her to the TARDIS (alone) because he didn’t know what to do with her. (It was his first time writing for Doctor Who, and he hadn’t quite worked out how to combine so many companions—not that many writers were good at that.) On the contrary, I think this is a brilliant example of how wonderful Nyssa is. She doesn’t need to be tagging along with the team all the time. When she’s got an important project in front of her, she puts her nose to the grindstone and works until it’s complete. She doesn’t need to go running off to ask for help. The girl’s got it. And when all’s said and done, she’s quietly proud and doesn’t demand accolades.
Nyssa doesn’t require “babysitting”. This essay is about Nyssa, and I don’t want to spend it bashing Adric and Tegan, but in comparison, those two really did require fairly constant attention. Tegan spends an awful lot of time arguing with the Doctor, and Adric’s often showing off. Nyssa doesn’t need that constant interaction.** I really wish there had been some televised stories with Nyssa and the fifth Doctor only. I imagine those two would have worked well together (as I’m told they do in other media). She would leave him to the introspection he always seems like he needs but can’t get while he’s effectively babysitting whiny companions. They could come together as relative equals and enjoy simple camaraderie. My heart is sad that I never got to see this.
Nyssa is quiet. Many people confuse quiet with boring. The two are not the same, just as loud does not equal interesting (despite what reality television may have us think). This gets back to how Nyssa is like me. Okay, so these days I’m not as quiet as I once was, but that shy girl I used to be is still inside and ready to take over at a moment’s notice. I certainly didn’t see shyness in Nyssa, but she showed me that just because one doesn’t speak constantly doesn’t mean one is unworthy or uninteresting. She spoke when she needed to, when it was useful, and didn’t clutter conversation with useless information or hindrances.
Nyssa is lonely. Here’s another aspect I related to. As a shy kid who wasn’t very good at making friends, I felt drawn to someone as alone as Nyssa. Yes, she had her TARDIS family, but her biological family—indeed, her entire race, her entire planet—were all gone. As the last surviving member of Traken, she was alone in a way her companions couldn’t really understand, but I thought I could—at least a little bit. And of course, this led to the next quality I related to.
Nyssa is sad. This wasn’t a huge part of her character, in fact, I always felt like it should have been addressed more than it was. She’d lost her beloved father (a very personal loss) and then her whole planetary system (a loss on a scale so staggering it should realistically take years, or possibly a lifetime, to deal with). The show at the time wasn’t as interested in examining internal struggles as today’s Who, but that didn’t stop me from recognizing it when I saw it. Nyssa suffered great loss. I didn’t suffer loss, per se. Rather, I didn’t have the friends and life I thought I needed in order to be happy. I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life, and as a child, it meant a lot to me to see someone who quietly dealt with terrible sadness and still achieved awesomeness.
Nyssa is kind. One of the basic tent poles of Nyssa’s character is her kindness. She clearly cares for the people and the world(s) around her. We can see that from the very beginning when she takes over tending to the Melkur in her first story. She’s pleased by the opportunity to do good for something that’s pure evil. Her care for the rest of the universe shines every bit as brightly. When she finally leaves the show, it’s because she seizes the opportunity to help the poor souls afflicted with Lazar’s disease. She spends her time on the TARDIS playing caretaker to everyone on board, and when she finds a place where she can be of even greater help, she bids farewell and continues her good works.
Nyssa is wise. Time after time on the TARDIS, Nyssa is the voice of reason or the calming influence on her more turbulent and truculent companions. She can calm Tegan, put Adric in his place, and make the Doctor see reason. She’s often the only one to be looking at the big picture and keeping her eye on the ball. Tegan’s too busy complaining, Adric is constantly interested in whatever shiny problem or opportunity is dangled in front of him, and the Doctor is in his own head much of the time. Nyssa keeps everyone on track. I can’t help but wonder if Adric would have survived “Earthshock” had Nyssa been on the ship to keep an eye out for him (or even figure out that the ship needed to crash in the first place).
Okay, so I can’t claim to have all of these qualities in the abundance that Nyssa does, but so many of them now clearly stand out as a match for myself as a youngster. I suspect that they resonated with me at the time, but that I couldn’t admit it because I was too busy thinking I was quite useless. Nyssa wasn’t useless, so how could I be like her?
It’s true that Nyssa isn’t the flashiest character Doctor Who has ever seen. Not even close. But flashy isn’t everything. Quite the opposite—for some of us, flashy doesn’t do a heck of a lot of good. I was a quiet, meek kid who was brainy and gentle and kind. I didn’t think much of myself because the louder, brasher, more demanding kids got all the attention in school and in life. But then I turned on my tv and saw Nyssa doing her thing—quietly, competently, successfully. And when I saw how important she was, how often she was integral to the saving of the day, that really meant a great deal.
Let’s face it, many classic Doctor Who fans are (and were) nerds. I say this with no rancor, as I count myself among their proud ranks. Well, proud now; at the time, things were different. Many of us were so introverted we couldn’t even bring ourselves to dream of being flamboyant and colorful and interesting like so many characters we saw on television. Or if we did dream about it, they were far-out dreams that had very little connection to reality. Nyssa was one of the first television characters I could truly look up to. She made me feel like being me was okay. I didn’t have to try to be something I wasn’t in order to be a useful and important member of the world I lived in.
I loved all the companions I grew up with. I tried to look up to them all, but they gave me only vague ideas of what women in the world could be like. None of them really reflected me. As much as I adored Sarah Jane (my first companion), I couldn’t relate to her. I didn’t have great ambitions; I didn’t even know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wasn’t as clever and quippy as Romana (not to mention as stunningly beautiful). I was as far from coordinated as you can get, so Leela was right out. Until Nyssa came along, I probably associated most with K-9.***
I have many favorite companions. I love them all for different reasons. But the companion of my heart, the companion who truly meant the most to me was, and will always be, sweet Nyssa. I still like to think of her, out there in the universe somewhere, being quietly, wonderfully, amazing.
* Yes, I’m looking at myself here. Hello irony! Nice to see you. Again. We really need to stop meeting like this.
** I’m not including Turlough in this discussion. He and Nyssa only barely crossed paths in “Mawdryn Undead” and “Terminus”, thus they had next to no time to forge a relationship.
*** Like most Americans, my Doctor Who experience started with Tom Baker and “Robot”.