Billions of Buttons

Don't worry; it's not that hard once you get used to it.

The bubble-top canopy rose automatically and Tom dived inside, searching frantically amongst hundreds of levers, switches and analogue dials for the start button.
Attack of the 50-Ft. Half-Klingon

Basically the Rule of Cool dictates that there should be lots of buttons on the fancy starship or new mech, often paired with rows of unlabeled indicator lights. But we only see a few buttons used, especially with the cases of stock footage. It's a billion buttons, with no apparent purpose.

Usually, of all these buttons, a few will always be used, usually in different contexts. This can be justified by the fact that any vessel with standardized parts would have more than a few displays which look identical, and the fact that pressing various combinations of the return, tab, arrow, and escape keys while in a menu system can in fact get you radically different results- but this does not mean that the rest of the keys are unnecessary.note  Nevertheless, many shows just don't manage to make things look convincing, or to consider that the more 'advanced' something is, the fewer buttons it might have.

Truth in Television. Real Life aircraft, spacecraft, power stations, trains and so on have loads and loads of buttons - many of which are probably only used if one particular component (out of thousands) is misbehaving. The cockpit of the Space Shuttle, for example, has buttons covering every available surface (even the ceiling!). In recent years more advanced and reliable computing power has allowed designers to simplify control panels; the 'Glass Cockpit' with Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS) screen, for instance, is pretty much standard kit on most airliners. Even in an era when most or all functions can be routed through a single simple interface, however, having a cockpit full of hard-wired controls reduces the chances of a single circuit failure rendering an entire craft uncontrollable. The armada of buttons are on standby just in case you have to take full manual control of the craft, or make it do something it wasn't designed to do- say, you need to land an airliner on a river, for instance...

Contrast alternate futuristic design styles Ascetic Aesthetic and Holographic Terminal

See also Extreme Graphical Representation, and the The Aesthetics of Technology for adding billions of buttons to something in an attempt to make it look complicated.


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  • In Wolverine #75, the X-Men are re-entering the atmosphere after flying the Blackbird to Magneto's asteroid. Quicksilver must take the pilot seat because there are so many buttons that he is the only one fast enough to activate them all.

    Films — Animated 
  • Yellow Submarine had this in spades: the eponymous submarine had hundreds of buttons to choose from. None of them were labeled in any way, either, requiring the Beatles to press them all at random to do anything. Most of the time, though, it didn't matter, as the submarine had New Powers as the Plot Demands.
  • The bonus animation on the Ratatouille DVD, "Lifted", has a lot of fun with this. Suffice it to say it involves a young alien who's taking his spaceship-flying test, in a spaceship controlled by Billions Of Unmarked Buttons Switches... Word of God mentioned that the daunting panel of switches was influenced/inspired by a sound mixer's console.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Galaxy Quest had the same principle as above. Tommy knew how to drive the Thermian ship because he had made up in his mind which each button was supposed to do, acted accordingly in the Show Within a Show, and the Thermians based their design on that.
    Like most things in Galaxy Quest, this was a direct homage to Star Trek; Wil Wheaton developed a similar system for the helm panel on the bridge of the Enterprise.
  • Parodied in the movie Airplane when Ted Striker first steps into the airplane's cockpit, and his POV slowly pans (and pans and pans) across an endless, well, panorama of buttons, knobs and switches. To top it off, that's an actual control panel from a four engine jet.
  • Parodied a second time in Airplane II: The Sequel, when Buck Murdoch (William Shatner hamming it up as always) has a nervous breakdown over the thousands of switches, lights and knobs in the control tower on the Moon.
    Murdoch: They're blinking and they're beeping and they're flashing... and they're FLASHING and they're BEEPING. I can't stand it anymore! WHY DOESN'T SOMEBODY STOP THEM?!...
  • The banks of billions of buttons in Alien were wired up such that actions on one console changed the configuration of lights on the other consoles, providing "work routines" for the actors to go through.
  • In Apollo 13 there are buttons all over the spacecraft, but the writers and actors made sure that usage of such buttons was realistic - they had the commander of Apollo 15 there every day to make sure they did it right.
  • The cockpit of the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.
    • "Retransmit this message to Coruscant." Accomplished with one keystroke.
    • The speeder bikes in Return of the Jedi have only three switches. The middle one apparently is used for jamming comm signals...
      • If the comm system for the bikes is like a CB radio, then just keying the mike and holding it open can interfere with other talkers. So, it's possible.
  • In 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the bridge of the Leonov was filled with unlabeled buttons.
    • Contrasted nicely with the Discovery, which has a very sensible layout. This was probably meant to imply something about the difference between United States and Soviet Union engineering.
    • Of couse, the Discovery had an advanced artificial intelligence to help run things. And the Leonov didn't end up drifting derelict in Jovian space, so maybe the Soviets were onto something.
  • The cockpit of any Batmobile, from the '66 TV show to The Dark Knight Saga.
  • A brilliant use in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Khan realizes that the Enterprise has managed to remotely order Reliant to lower her shields, the camera quickly cuts to a rapidly-panning P.O.V. Cam shot of a control panel as Khan tries to find the override (the subtitle commentary on the Director's Cut wryly points out that Khan won't find it: He's staring at the helmsman's station).
  • In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Bennie the Cab's dashboard is covered in dozens of buttons, levers, and switches. During a chase scene, when he orders Roger and Eddie to "Pull the lever!", he has to produce a sign indicating which one he's talking about. ("This Lever, Stupid!")
  • Gravity plays this realistically, as all the areas in the film are real space stations. (Well, that and future space stations). Dr. Stone has to read both Russian and Chinese on control panels for the ISS' Soyuz and the Tiangong station's Shenzou, respectively, and there are manuals there to help.
  • The Delorean Time Machine in Back to the Future films has three rows of buttons along the roof of the car (well, the roof that isn't also part of the gull-wing doors) and more than a few on the board behind the seats. They're never touched in the movies, though the Delorean model in the video game labels the buttons such things as "Flux front", "Coolsys 1", and "Alt".

  • Subverted in The Subtle Knife: after seeing a computer for the first time, Lyra describes the keyboard as "a board with at least one hundred buttons". She is right, mind...
  • In the original novels and both film adaptations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the walls of Willy Wonka's Great Glass Elevator are covered floor to ceiling with buttons. At least this time it's clearly explained that there is a button for each room and there are a lot of rooms, as the factory is akin to an iceberg, with only a small fraction visible above-ground.
    • The sequel shows how Crazy-Prepared Wonka is. The elevator has a button that supplies oxygen to the elevator, four for rockets for directional movement, and one for orbital reentry rockets. (Exactly why he was expecting to take it into orbit when he built it isn't made clear.)
  • Venturus from Archer's Goon got carried away with the Rule of Cool and designed his spaceship like this. Operating it requires two people, stretched across the array of buttons so as to press four or more of them at a time.
    • This is lampshaded all to hell, if you can't tell.
  • Halo plays around with this in the novel adaptation for the first game. Master Chief has to do X task, just happens to know which of many buttons to press and nobody can figure it the heck out.
  • Implied in The Dark Tower: Roland sees a 1980s-era jetliner cockpit and immediately understands why it takes four people to operate.
  • The computer room of the cruise ship Star of Empire, in Galaxy of Fear is just crowded with buttons, all colorful.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Doctor Who TARDIS console has tons of buttons and things on her it, because it's actually a 6-person console which the Doctor is using by himself. The ship also creates her own interfaces every time she takes on a new appearance, and the buttons change accordingly. The Doctor often needs to run around the console hitting buttons on all sides, even when it's not an emergency. (In an emergency he sometimes has to tie levers down with rope...) Also, because of the effect of eleven centuries of amateur maintenance, the console possesses less actual buttons than it does loose wires, brass light switches, bicycle pumps...
    • For many years the BBC kept a plywood mockup console for rehearsals that had outlines of the various controls drawn on it. If you looked closely you'd find handwritten notes penciled in beside some of them. They were written by Jon Pertwee: every time he had to do something "new" on the console he'd pick an unlabelled control on the mockup and use it, then write in what he used it for in case it ever came up again. Basically, Schrödinger's Gun as applied to controls.
    • In the serial Day of the Daleks the women 'manning' the consoles in the Controller's headquarters are clearly just sliding their hands aimlessly over those same consoles. Perhaps it's meant to be a touch-sensitive interface, but how can they tell what they're doing without looking at the panels?
    • The Aesthetics of Technology is invoked in the Sonic Screwdriver which has had very few buttons over the course of the show's run but lots of functionality (much of it from the newer series). The latest version has a thumb slide and specifically operates by reading the user's thoughts and extracting a relevant function.
    • In the new series, much as in the Pertwee days, the uselessness of the buttons is averted. Matt Smith was actually given a manual when he was cast as the Eleventh Doctor so he could learn to use the console properly.
    • If the dramatisation of the early days of the franchise An Adventure in Space and Time is accurate this was in effect from the very start of the show. William Hartnell insisting that the same controls were used for the same Tardis function successfully arguing with the producers that it would violate viewers suspension of disbelief if he used the same control to operate the door one week and activate the viewscreen the next.
    • One Big Finish radio episode hinted that the TARDIS spontaneously sprouted a new function and accompanying button just to save the Doctor's life with it.
  • The control consoles for starships in Star Trek. The original series had huge panels filled with unlabeled buttons and switches. The Next Generation had illuminated consoles that were touch-sensitive, and we always see crewmembers constantly pushing buttons even when nothing much is happening.
    • George Takei, playing helmsman Sulu in the original series, subverted the usual Context-Sensitive Button corollary; directed to push a particular button, he refused, saying that based on previous episodes it would blow up the ship.
    • In Star Trek: Voyager, Paris designs the Delta Flyer with buttons and other manual controls (modeled off a Buck Rogers-esque 1940s movie serial) specifically so he can have a more tactile experience when flying it. Plus Rule of Cool. Also lampshaded by quite a few characters they run into.
  • In the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series UFO (1970-1) a montage of flashing lights, spinning tape drives, blocky letters on colored monitors, swaying female buttocks, and rows of large luminous buttons accompany every Red Alert.
  • In The Twilight Zone original series, any time a computer was used, it would have not only numerous buttons, but also lights that were not labeled, which would blink, usually in a pattern.
  • In Firefly, Serenity's cockpit doesn't have massive amounts of buttons, but it does have a large number of them on the consoles and especially on the cockpit's ceiling.
    • Alan Tudyk, who played the ship's pilot Wash, said that every time he was directed to do something with the ship, he would always flip three switches above him as a sort of "start-up sequence".
  • Inverted in Red Dwarf with Holly's ultra-sophisticated, universe traveling, faster-than-light "Holly Hop Drive". It only had two buttons a green one marked "Start" and a red one marked "stop", you pressed the green one to start it...
    Holly: ...and you can work out the rest of the controls yourself.
    • In Back In The Red, Kryten manages to sway Rimmer into coming with them by promising him his own seat in the cockpit with as many as five buttons at his command.
  • The vehicles in Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad were controlled by many flashing unlabelled buttons pushed by untrained teenagers (and on one occasion a high school lunchlady) - even weirder considering the said vehicles were actually antivirus software.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons featured an artifact known as the Machine of Lum the Mad, a device consisting of a large console powered by dozens of dials, plugs, levers, and buttons, none of which are labeled. A sourcebook for Second Edition AD&D introduced the Mighty Servant of Leuk-O, which was essentially a Humongous Mecha controlled by around 300 unlabelled levers.
    • This trope got used numerous times with Gary Gygax and his original gaming group, as they all liked to gamble on random lever pulls. Often Gary would keep two or three different lever or button rooms as Schmuck Bait for the players, who couldn't resist pulling them and hoping to get a magic item or a sizable boost in XP — though just as often they'd end up dooming the party instead... The infamous Deck of Many Things is based on the same concept.
    • The most button (and dial, and switchboard plug) heavy version of the Machine of Lum the Mad had 8.5x10^48 different combinations, each with the possibility to possess its own unique effect. (And the worst part is, it would have far more combination if many of its controls weren't broken.) Obviously, they were not enumerated, but the possibilities do give one the idea why Lum was called "the mad."
  • Into the Outdoors with Gun and Camera, the introductory adventure to Paranoia 2nd ed, sends the hapless Troubleshooters into wacky adventures on a six-legged amphibious vehicle. The players are presented a foldout of the vehicle's dashboard with unmarked buttons, gauges and levers, and of course the instruction manual is not available at their security clearance. Have a nice day.

  • The Atari Jaguar's controller had seventeen buttons: a normal set of buttons consisting of a directional pad, Pause and Option buttons and 3 face buttons, and a numerical keypad under them with number sign and asterisk buttons. The intention was to include game-specific plastic faceplates to be attached on top of them as a reminder of what each button does in that game. Keep in mind that this is a game controller, where all the buttons have to be able to be accessed easily and quickly. This was one of several reasons as to why it flopped.
    • This is just the standard controller : The Pro Controller adds Z, Y and X on another row as well as two shoulder buttons for a whopping 22 possibilities.
  • Steel Battalion, a $200 Humongous Mecha game for the X-Box, has a controller approximating what might actually be used to pilot a mech, including an ejector switch housed in a plastic cover which had to be used if your mech was destroyed or you, the pilot, were blown up too... which deleted your saved game. Seriously. Originally the designers intended for the ejector switch to be under a glass cover that the player would have to break if he wanted to use it. Thankfully, they came to their senses.
  • The Bonus Dungeon of Baldur's Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal included a (toned down for simplicity of coding) version of the aforementioned Machine of Lum the Mad. The rest of the dungeon provided several notes giving valid combinations (yielding some very nice stat boosts and the key to the next level of the dungeon), but hitting switches at random produced random results in the usual range from 'brilliant' (the single largest XP reward in the game) to 'damn' (disintegrate the operator with no saving throw).
  • Battletech: Firestorm simulator pods have MFDs with many buttons that are labeled that control functions from targeting, selecting between group and chain fire, setting pilot mode, and even buttons to shout pre-recorded radio insults to another/all player(s).
  • Kerbal Space Program's "Raster Prop Monitor" Game Mod adds virtual cockpits to almost all control pods, with several multi-function displays that can flip between radar, status displays, orbital maps, etc. Each MFD has multiple buttons for controlling the display. Many cockpits also have additional controls such as flip switches (complete with a protective cover) for emergency boosters, parachutes, staging, fuel cut-off, and so on.

  • In Sluggy Freelance Riff and Mad Scientists in general love this trope. You'd think Riff would learn to cut down on the bright buttons since he has Kiki living with him.

    Western Animation 
  • In a similar vein to the above example, Mike's New Car, the short attached to Monsters, Inc., had the titular automobile with an array of devices and doohickeys. Naturally, every single one of them is unlabeled.
  • The eponymous giant robot in Megas XLR has buttons for every occasion. In one episodes, he hits a series of buttons labelled, in this order, "Missiles," "More Missiles," and "All da Missiles." In another, after declaring he was going into Super Destructor Mode, Coop presses a button labelled, "You heard him kids Super Destructor Mode!" Once, when trapped in a cocoon with a giant alien insect queen bearing down on them, Coop and his pals look over all the hundreds of buttons on the console and find themselves having to decide between "Break Out of Cocoon" and "Kill Giant Insect." He also installed three buttons that could destroy the planet ("Destroy the World," "Smite the World," and "Destroy the World Worse"), but the "Save the World" button was out of order when he needed it the most. Heck, there's a button in the series finale for "Just Got Hit With A Giant Taser?" which zaps the guy with the taser by sending a charge along his own wires.
    • Megas XLR is the king of this trope when it comes to labels - in that same finale, the gearshift reads "P R N D Save Jamie". When Jamie is being trapped under a collapsing column in the dystopian alternate universe, guess into what gear Coop shifts? That's right.
    • In another episode, Coop retorts to the villain, "Maybe you'll like this better, then!" The button he presses is marked "THIS BETTER THEN", which makes no sense in any other context (What does THIS BETTER THEN do? It extends axe blades from Megas' forearm, and then the arm extends to perform the giant-robot equivalent of a heart-rip-out fatality).
    • And let's not forget the (in)famous "5 minutes to the end of the episode"-button
    • For a miniature version (who knew it was possible?) the ultimate controller used in Rearview Mirror Mirror. About the size of Coop's face covered in little buttons for an infinite number of combinations for battle moves, including one for interdimensional travel.
  • Subverted in The Simpsons. Sideshow Bob enters a fighter jet to escape pursuit. The cockpit has two buttons: Stop and Fly. Bob remarks, "Thank god for the idiot-proof air force!"
    • It shows up again in "500 Keys" with the Duff blimp, which only has a stop and a go button. Homer still complains about how many buttons there are.
    • A similar gag was done in Family Guy, justified (sort of?) in that the people in the air planes were babies. The three buttons were LIFT OFF, FIRE MISSILES, and... a clowny face. It doesn't do anything, just enjoy it.
    • Played straight when Lisa encounters a Chinese keyboard.note 
    • Played straight when you look at Homer's job. The show had fun with it when they forced him to demonstrate his knowledge in a simulator.
      • For reference, he manages to cause a nuclear meltdown in a simulator that's not connected to anything. The testers are as baffled as anyone else.
  • In the Looney Tunes short "Designs for Leaving", Elmer Fudd's house is made over into an automated home with a panel of dozens of buttons that activate the various features. Includes one Big Red Button which he must never, ever push. (He does, of course.)
  • Parodied in an episode of Sonic Sat AM when Sonic sabotages Robotnik's oil drilling operation, though he takes out the drilling probes with their emergency destruct button first. ("I wonder what'll happen if I punch all these buttons? Only one way to find out!") He proceeds to do just that while singing a slight remix of the song he sang earlier in the episode, thus causing the drilling platform's destruction.
  • Garfield and Friends had an episode where Orson and the chicks imagine they're in a spaceship. When they get in trouble they ask Orson which of the countless unlabeled buttons will save them, to which he replies the spaceship is imaginary and to just pick one.
  • Parodied during an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, while Shake pokes around the button laden ship of the Plutonians.
    Ogelthorpe: Quit pushing the buttons!
    Shake: This whole ships a bunch of buttons!

    Real Life 
  • The Space Shuttle, pictured above. That's a photo of the "glass cockpit", added later in the Orbiters' lives, which added additional visual screens while reducing the number of buttons by a few dozen or so.
  • Many recent MIDI controllers have arrays of buttons, keys, and knobs that are completely programmable and thus unlabelled.
  • What analog audio mixing consoles lack in buttons they make up in knobs. A mid-size console with parametric EQ can have well over one thousand knobs.
  • Concorde, the world-famous supersonic airliner.
  • Mozilla Firefox is arguably the virtual equivalent: go to about:config, click through the cutesy warning if need be and let your mind boggle at the sheer number of options. Made even better by the fact that a number of settings aren't even there by default; luckily, there's a manual.
  • Have a look at a Formula One steering wheel.
  • Or better yet the control panel of a Nuclear Power Plant.
  • The modern design trend is "glass cockpits", (computer displays with touchscreens) meaning this trope is rapidly going away. Critical controls must still remain as physical buttons, however, since power may not be available to the touchscreens in an emergency.
  • QWERTY keyboards, compared to a chorded keyboard, which were once thought likely to become commonly used. They're usually labelled, but there are blank keyboards available, intended to help people learn to touch-type.
    • Taken Up to Eleven with the IBM 1397000 122-key (aka the IBM PS/2 Host Connected) keyboard[1], which looks like the result of what happens when an IBM XT keyboard and an IBM AT keyboard loves each other very much. While lacking a windows key and a right menu key, it makes up for it by not only including the full 101 key repertoire of an IBM AT Keyboard, but an additional 12 function keys (this thing goes from F1 to F24!), 7 extra terminal function keys, and an additional home key smack in the middle of the dedicated arrow keys.
    • If that still isn't enough buttons for you, SteelSeries has the Apex- a keyboard for gamers with a whopping 138 keys[2], aping the layout of the 1397000 and then some.
    • And then there are gaming mice with up to 20 buttons. Why people need a mouse with so many buttons, no one knows, but apparently there's a healthy market for those.
  • Pilots of the famous A-10 Warthog (that would be the American attack plane giant rotary cannon with a plane wrapped around it) are expected to not only be able to use the many buttons, knobs, and switches in the cockpit (the design predates the Glass Cockpit concept), but they are expected to be able to do so blindfolded during training in case they have a problem while flying at night.
  • Analog or virtual-analog synthesizers. Even more so, modular synthesizers. Justified in that 1960s and 1970s tech level required for one controller for each parameter, and that today this actually makes synths easier to tweak than more modern ones which require sifting through dozens of menus with either one knob for everything or none at all.
  • The EKO Computerhythm, the first programmable drum machine. Speaking of stuff used by Jean-Michel Jarre, the Geiss Digisequencer. Then again, how much more straight-forward can sequence programming be than a hardware piano roll?
  • Modern roller coasters, such as El Toro, Top Thrill Dragster, and Kingda Ka have lots of buttons, but most of them are only used for maintenance.