Being a man possessed of great charm, the Doctor operates as a classless being. So long as you’re not mean-spirited or judgmental, he’ll happily get along with anyone. And in looking back on his choice of companions, he’s attracted friends from all walks of life, from noble savages Leela and Jamie, up through working class Rose and Ben to the white-collar Ian and Rory and the more well-to-do Polly and Victoria. Nyssa tops the lot, however. She’s an aristocrat, the daughter of a high-ranking consul, in the Union of Traken, and young and precious with it.
Here’s her first meeting with the Fourth Doctor from The Keeper of Traken. If the fella in the beard seems oddly familiar, and the fact that he’s called Tremas is niggling at the back of your mind, let’s just say he’s about to run into an old friend.
In fact, his body is soon taken over by the spirit of the Master, who hypnotizes Nyssa and kidnaps her. She is taken to Logopolis by a strange white figure called The Watcher, where she learns the Master is responsible for the destruction of her home planet, and is running around the universe looking exactly like her dad (after an evil makeover). Orphaned and homeless, her aristocratic upbringing no longer worth a damn, she throws her lot in with the Doctor, Tegan and Adric. Only to bear witness to his regeneration, which of course goes awry (Castrovalva).
So by the time things settle down into the more regular travelling-and-meddling lifestyle that all TARDIS-dwellers are used to, she’s already been through an incredible series of traumas. What’s impressive is her ability to deal with all of this, given her tender years (Sarah Sutton remains the youngest actress to play a companion so far, unless you count Caitlin Blackwood’s astonishing turn as young Amy Pond).
So she’s posh and she’s young, and she’s tough, naively blundering into all sorts of situations, and then using her aristocratic bearing to deal with the any unfortunate circumstances. Her character may have been harder to define against the twin fires of stroppy Tegan and irritating Adric, but without them hogging the attention, she’s closer in spirit to the wide-eyed and inquisitive (and easily captured) Jo Grant.
Of course, the Doctor being the Doctor, her new home isn’t exactly a safe place to pull herself together, a fact which will have been brought home by the death of Adric, some five trips into her new life (Earthshock). It’s clear, after a while, that Nyssa felt swept up in the Doctor’s slipstream, and replaced the trauma of her losses with the excitement of adventuring, but once she realizes that she has to deal with everything that has happened to her (a process represented within the show when she contracts a form of space leprosy and has to wander around a space station in a slip and underskirt), she realizes it’s time to stop, and find a role for herself. So that’s exactly what she does.
Here’s a nicely potted skip through Nyssa’s final adventure, Terminus, in which she becomes infected, and is unfortunately labelled a “lazar” as a result (much to the giggly delight of teenage boys everywhere I’m sure). Her goodbye, when it comes, is tear-stained and noble, and shows once again that the women of Doctor Who may arrive amid accusations of eye candy, pandering to the male viewers, but they always leave having demonstrated spines of pure steel.