‘Doctor Who’: ‘Borrowed Time’ by Naomi A. Alderman book review

Those of you who have been following this summer’s crop of Doctor Who books may have noticed something of a theme running through them: namely, an interest in the more unusual consequences of time-travel that seems to coincide with current showrunner Steven Moffat’s vision for the series, accidentally or otherwise.

Thankfully, though, Naomi Alderman chooses to step away from the issue of temporal paradoxes that has been woven through both the TV series and the other two books from this current set. Instead, she delivers possibly one of the best and most original premises of any Doctor Who media: one of those ideas so good you’re certain someone must have thought of it before.

As stated, Alderman is not so much concerned here with the paradoxical results of time-travel, but rather the question of what would happen if time itself were a commodity that could be bought, sold and, yes, borrowed. It is such borrowing of time by the employees of a large bank that drives the plot here, but it is only when the exact terms of the loans made by the sinister Messrs Symington and Blenkinsop are revealed do things really get going (incidentally, there is a brilliant reveal involving these two that fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer may well appreciate).

If you’re now wondering whether this scenario will be used as the basis for some classic Who-esque satire then you’re right on the money. When The Doctor announces “we’re going to the scene of the biggest banking collapse your species has ever known!” we know that the behaviour of banks prior to the global recession is going to get a sci-fi twist. The immorality of charging huge amounts of interests on loans and the general work culture of the City are also parodied, although thankfully quite subtly.

Along with the excellent premise, ‘Borrowed Time’ has brilliant ideas dropped in that other writers could build a whole book around, all of which display Alderman’s relentlessly imaginative approach. In addition to the idea of borrowing time being explored and taken in many fascinating directions, there’s a camera that can subjectively slow down time, a very unusual alien storage facility and a fantastic demonstration of compound interest by The Doctor conducted through the medium of cake.

Alderman is already a well-established writer and, while this is no disrespect to the other authors, the prose is noticeably sharper and richer than in most Doctor Who novels – the opening description of the Square Mile at the beginning of Chapter 3 is especially good. The quality of the actual writing doesn’t often get mentioned in such reviews, so it is a tribute to Alderman that it stood out.

If one small criticism could be made it is that the ending, while generally impressive, is a little confusing in parts. But this is a minor niggle and overall ‘Borrowed Time’ is an intelligent, gripping work that easily sits among the best Doctor Who books.


Published on Thursday 23rd June 2011 by BBC Books.

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