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Plot-Sensitive Button

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Hartnell: I need time to plot out all the buttons, you see.
Verity: Buttons?
Hartnell: On the controls! All the switches and dials! I need to know what they all do. What if I press something to open the doors and the next week I use it to blow us all up?

It's a decades-old geek joke that the perfect computer would only have one instruction: Do What I Want. In The Future, this will be achieved, so that a character can push the same button over and over and have it do something different each time. (Often a Big Red Button, but not always)

This is most commonly the result of a set constructed with lots of control panels, but no one keeping track of which button serves which purpose in the context of the story.

These are often used to control the Do-Anything Robot. Compare Action Commands, Swiss-Army Weapon, Magic Tool, Damn You, Muscle Memory!.

See also Context-Sensitive Button, in which the button is actively changing based on what's happening at the moment.


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  • The Staples chain of office supply stores ran a series of TV commercials in which someone is out of a certain office supply, then presses a big red button labeled "EASY" which caused a large quantity of the missing office supply to appear. A later commercial parodied earlier ones by having an EASY button accidentally held down, causing massive quantities of various office supplies to materialize around an office building.

    In another ad, office supplies randomly fall from the air — until a family discovers their one-year-old happily playing with a new toy. Current commercials have people trying (and failing) to use said EASY button for things other than office supplies. Staples has actually manufactured these buttons, which simply state "that was easy" when pressed.

  • In Dragon Ball Z, Bulma's Dragon Radar only has a single button on the top. In the anime at least, said button is zoom, pan, on, and off all in one. Very rarely someone will twist the button, but only when the radar seems to be broken. The scouters the Saiyans and Frieza's henchmen use to search for and measure characters' Power Levels also have only one button.
  • In Code Geass, Lelouch has a switch shaped vaguely like a chess piece that serves multiple functions, ranging from remote controlling guns of a freshly hijacked mecha, detonating planted explosives, causing his Humongous Mecha to launch chaff, and causing Mount Fuji to erupt. Points two and three are especially notable because he did them in the same battle, when he couldn't have conceivably altered its function beforehand. As one might expect from this example, Memetic Mutation has turned the switch into the anime equivalent of Batman's utility belt.
  • In Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, the Ganmen's controls don't have a clear connection to the operation. When asked how to operate one, Simon says you just move the levers back and forth and it does what you want.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!: Any time Kaiba uses his hax skills. Summed up quite nicely in the abridged series:
    Computer: It looks like you're just pressing the same buttons over and over again.
    Kaiba: That's because I learned how to hack by watching old episodes of Star Trek.
  • In Heroman, the remote control that Joey uses to control Heroman only has one button. Justified in that Heroman is pretty much a robotic Bond Creature.
    • Played with. The button is the same every time, however the setup of the device changes the label of the button, and thus what signals it sends to Heroman. Being sentient, he has also "suggested" what should be pressed a few times, and even when he doesn't the exact interpretation changes.

    Comic Books 
  • Steelgrip Starkey and the All-Purpose Power Tool: The eponymous Power Tool appears as a grayish box with a big handle until Steelgrip grabs hold of the handle and thinks about what he needs to accomplish his task. Then the tool somehow becomes what he needs, and he will somehow know how to operate it using the same handle.

    Comic Strips 
  • In Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin's transmogrifier is a cardboard box with an indicator that points to whatever animal Calvin wants to turn into. If he wants to turn into something that is not listed, he just writes it on the side. The box itself is context-sensitive: crawl underneath it and it's a transmogrifier, go into it from the side and it's a duplicator, and climb in the top and it's a time machine.
    Hobbes: Oh no, I'm not getting into that box. I don't want to be transmogrified or duplicated or whatever.
    Calvin: What? When the TOP is open, it's a time machine, remember?
    • Actually weaponized when Calvin gets rid of his clones by tricking them into running into the duplicator, then flipping it over to turn it into a transmogrifier, whose effect produces a "ZAP" sound instead of a "BOINK" sound.
  • One The Far Side comic was a fake advertisement for an all-purpose product called Stopit, which is stored in a aerosol can. It is shown being sprayed on various living and non-living things to make them stop doing something, for example, being sprayed on a smoker to make them stop smoking.

    Film — Animated 
  • The Incredibles: There are four buttons seen on Syndrome's remote. They all are able to control the Omnidroid, whether by disengaging its limbs, stop it from attacking, or activate its claws. Try to figure out which button on the remote does what.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Strongly averted in Apollo 13. NASA sent them Dave Scott, the commander of Apollo 15, to ensure that they used all of the Billions of Buttons correctly.
  • Galaxy Quest plays with this. The pilot knew just what buttons on the control panel did what, because when he was working on the fake ship, he personally assigned 'X Task To Y Button', being a child star (enjoying his work!) when he was initially on the TV show. In Real Life Wil Wheaton did this when working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, inventing imaginary things he had to push to send the commands he'd logically need to send, like 'propulsion', 'impulse', 'to 50%'. This is probably the basis of the scene in Galaxy Quest.
  • In The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Medusa device is operated by a single large switch which, when flipped, without any direction, turns to stone only the intended target.
  • Star Trek movies:
    • In Star Trek: Insurrection, Captain Picard pushes a button on his control console labeled "Calibrate", which is enough to call up the lyrics of "A British Tar" and engage it in karaoke mode (complete with bobbing ball).
    • More generally, 24th century Starfleet control panels are reconfigurable, thus allowing actors to push the same spot and achieve different effects. So says series graphic designer Mike Okuda in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual. In other words, everything works like big iPhones.
    • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: A modified torpedo is launched by someone pressing a button — an actual solid button — labelled "Mode Select".
      • To be fair to the movie, they had just finished jury-rigging the torpedo, so maybe they just wired it into a handy nearby button.
  • Star Wars:
    • In Attack of the Clones, Padmé Amidala pressed a red button on her ship control panel to transmit Obi-Wan's message to the Jedi Council, and later pressed the same button to show Anakin the holographic map of Geonosis.
    • In Revenge of the Sith, this was referenced when Padmé pressed the same button to start the ship. It was further parodied in Rifftrax:
      Padmé: I'm going to help Obi-Wan.
      Mike: [as Padmé] By pressing the only button on the ship that works!
  • In Who Framed Roger Rabbit? While riding in Benny the Cab, Benny yelled, "Pull the lever!" "What lever?" "THAT one!" and a sign appeared, labeled "This lever, stupid!"
  • When Aura teaches Flash Gordon to pilot a spaceship, she says the left lever controls direction and that the right controls altitude. Flash is later seen using them for the opposite purposes.

  • Discworld: Subverted in Witches Abroad, where Magrat tries to use a magic wand by just waving it and wishing really hard for what she wants. It turns things to pumpkins every single time. By the end of the novel, Granny Weatherwax has worked out that the apparently ornamental rings on the end can be twisted & clicked into different combinations for different results.
  • The second Aquila novel says that actions can be reassigned to any button by simply asking the ship's computer.

    Live-Action TV 
  • On The Colbert Report, Colbert has a segment named "Bears and Balls", a riff on Jim Cramer's Mad Money. While Cramer has a panel full of buttons which all play different sound effects, Colbert instead has one big red button, which plays a different sound effect whenever he hits it.
  • Doctor Who:
    • The sonic screwdriver seems able to perform any and all tasks required, just by pointing and buzzing. It has cut, welded, unlocked locks both electronic and mechanical, detonated marsh gas, disabled androids, changed channels on a military communications screen, manipulated multiple computer systems and, of course, unfastened screws. No explanation for its versatility-sans-external-controls has ever been advanced onscreen, but when Amy Pond had to use the screwdriver in "Let's Kill Hitler", Rory commented that it (at least that incarnation of it anyway) had a psychic interface.
      Specific settings have been referenced. In "The Doctor Dances", the Ninth Doctor tells Rose which one reattaches barbed wire. We don't know how settings are selected. In "The Keeper of Traken", however, the Doctor explicitly states that it can't do anything against purely mechanical locks (although this seems to have been quietly retconned, since the Doctor uses it on mechanical locks all the time in the new series). Also, since it can only manipulate one device at a time, it can't open deadlocks.
      • On occasion, the Doctor gives the screwdriver to a companion to use. Their instructions (except for the barbed wire case, and when Martha used it in "The Lazarus Experiment") are never more complicated than "point and click", though.
    • Oddly, in the TARDIS we have the inverse: the same function is sometimes activated by different controls. The Doctor and Adric use different controls to open the TARDIS doors in "Logopolis", the 9th Doctor dematerialised the TARDIS by twisting a dial whereas the 10th Doctor does it by throwing a particular lever (despite both using the same version of the console room), and so on. "The Lodger" had a control that only worked when Amy took two paces to the right and tried again.
      • According to Matt Smith, the crew actually have a TARDIS operations manual that he was required to read when he became the Doctor. Therefore, yes, the TARDIS controls do have specific functions that the special effects crew have worked out, and the actor isn't just randomly flipping levers and pushing buttons when operating the TARDIS.
    • Jon Pertwee once said that, like the Star Trek example, he'd assigned functions to every one of the panels on the console. Also, for a New Series example, the Series One Companion Guide states that "the Doctor's got it rigged so that when he pushes a button on one side, it unlocks a lever on the other side," and that's why he's madly dashing about.
    • William Hartnell was the first Doctor to specifically make sure that he always used the same controls to perform the same actions, being a notorious stickler about it. This gets a major scene in An Adventure in Space and Time where Hartnell yells at his production crew for expecting him to use a button on a cinematically-appropriate side of the console rather than the actual switch, as if they should know better.
  • In Firefly there are three switches that the pilot, Wash, always flips whenever he starts doing something. This is remarked on by the actor in one of the commentaries.
  • Justified in iCarly, in the episode "iStart a Fan War", at a convention panel for iCarly, one of the fans asks how Sam's remote control does different things on different shows. Freddy, the Tech Guru, states that he simply reprograms it as needed for each show.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000: Whenever Joel or Mike needed to see what was happening outside the Satellite Of Love, they'd ask Cambot to "Give me rocket number nine!" The camera would then cut to a view outside the satellite; it would be a completely different angle every time.
    • Rocket Number 9 does not have eight siblings; Joel named it after this song by the band Sun Ra.
  • On The Peter Serafinowicz Show appeared a spoof Apple ad, featuring the "Mactini" a computer so small it only has one key. To type A you press the button once. To press Z, you press it... 26 times. And you do not wanna know how to do punctuation.
  • In the Red Dwarf episode "Parallel Universe", Holly invents the "Holly-Hop Drive", a device intended to move the ship instantly to any point in space (although it actually instead moves the ship into an Alternate Universe). Much to the crew's scorn, the drive is just a red box with two buttons: "Start" and "Stop". In the words of Holly: "If you want to start it, press Start, and you can work out the rest of the controls for yourself."
  • In the famous (for all the wrong reasons) Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Spock's Brain", the torture wristband magically knows exactly who its user wants to hurt when the single button is pressed. Probably the same technology that allows the transporter chief to know which three to beam up.
  • Certain Super Sentai and/or Power Rangers series have these in the mecha/Zord cockpits; Choujin Sentai Jetman would sometimes have Jet Icarus' (impressive) arsenal summoned up by seemingly pressing the same couple of buttons every time. (Admittedly they call out the name of the weapon, so it's possible voice commands are used in conjunction. They also only have a few other attacks in the other modes and combinations used later on, little of which have any button pressing.)
  • Torchwood: Captain Jack Harkness' vortex manipulator seems to control just about everything in the Hub, not to mention being a teleporter and time travel device when working properly. Similarly, opponent Capt. John Hart has a device which appears to be exactly the same (including the limitation of not actually doing what it's meant to do, despite it never being stated that his VM is anything other than perfectly functional) with the added bonus of his being able to manipulate the rift, which Torchwood requires a massive machine draining huge amounts of power to do...
  • The buttons on Would I Lie to You? which the panellists press to reveal whether a story is true or a lie appear to know which graphic to bring up despite the fact each panellist only has one button. This is because they're purely for effect and not connected to anything; it's the job of the production team to time the graphics with the button being pressed. This trope was extensively parodied in an outtake where one of the panellists forgot to press the button but the graphics came up anyway.

    Video Games 
  • From a player's point of view, while Conker's may have named them, the context-sensitive button is ubiquitous in game design. It's that button that defuses bombs, opens doors, types at the computer, interacts with the NPC, picks up the ammunition, rummages the chest, pulls the lever, and just about any other non-combat action that needs to be done.
  • And before that, text adventures and adventure games usually had a Use command of some sort, which meant "take this object and try to do something sensible with it." Of course, that also was used to give your hero the Idiot Ball and have them do something incredibly dumb to contribute to The Many Deaths of You.
  • Conker's Bad Fur Day featured the Context Sensitive Buttons, this trope's previous name. They were big, B-labelled buttons on the ground that did whatever the plot called for.
  • In Trace some of the red buttons in the large room turn on the machines, some don't, but they're all a part of a larger puzzle.


    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • An episode of American Dad! featured a theme park which had three shutdown buttons: "Shut It Down", "Shut It All Down", and "Shut It Down, Shut It All Down". The third button is pressed by command of the theme park's founder, saying those exact words.
  • In Batman Beyond, Mad Stan had a detonator with only one button on it, yet pressing it only set off the bombs he wanted it to.
  • The Rustbucket II in Ben 10: Alien Force features one of these in the second episode of season one, when Kevin "borrows" it. Justified, as it is alien technology.
  • DuckTales (1987): Gyro Gearloose's popsicle-powered time machine (as opposed to his bathtub-shaped one) had a large dial for selecting a time period. Just as in the Calvin and Hobbes example above, an illiterate pilot (Bubba) was able to operate the machine by drawing a picture of Scooge (sic) and turning the dial to it. The dial even sprouted a camera so it could get a look at the picture.
  • The Ed, Edd n Eddy episode "Robbin' Ed" featured "The Thingamajig", which provides exactly what the character needs when they push the button, even if the object is bigger than the Thingamajig. It's used at the end of the episode to resolve the plot.
  • Futurama:
    • Bender's antenna. However, it might be more a case of the antenna being the start button for whatever program Bender loads for his needs. No telling for sure.
    • Fry once used a can of "all purpose spray" to paint an entire army uniform on himself, including boots.
    • Amy uses the "all purpose spray" in a different episode to make herself another bikini top, after Nibbler steals her original one.
  • Inspector Gadget: Penny's watch could do a lot, from firing a laser, to remote controlling things, to being used as a phone. It only had three buttons.
  • Kim Possible: Lampshaded with a Weather-Control Machine: Dr. Drakken keeps hitting the same button because, as he says, "These controls are supposed to work intuitively!"
  • Looney Tunes:
    • In "Operation: Rabbit", Wile E. Coyote uses a guided missile to get Bugs Bunny by setting the dial to rabbit. Bugs distracts it by wearing a rooster mask, then writes coyote on the side and moves the dial there to send it back to Wile E.
  • In The Magic School Bus there was a context-sensitive lever that Ms. Frizzle would pull to get the bus to turn into whatever the episode called for. Mind you, that may be justified by the fact that the bus was sentient.
  • Parodied in Megas XLR, as shown in the page image.
    • Coop activated a weapon with one button labeled "That Cool Giant Energy Sword Thing". He later activates a different weapon with the same button, and when he does the button is labeled "Exactly the Same Button Coop Just Used Like Five Minutes Ago." This was a running gag in the show, where this same button would have different labels like "Do Something Stupid Coop", "Rip Arms Out of Sockets" and after Coop said, "Maybe you'd like this better, then!", it said "This Better Then". After announcing he was about to use Super Destructor Mode it said "You heard the man, kids! Super Destructor Mode!" Other labels were "Five Minutes until End of Episode" (because he'd always push it right then), "The Right Choice", and the one time the button was missing it was labeled "Save the World". Which was part of a selection which included "Destroy the World", "Smite the World", and "Destroy the World Worse". Then finally, there's the Deus ex Machina button used to solve up the episode's problems with no plausible explanation just because it's funnier that way.
    • In another episode, Megas is trapped in a giant cocoon by a moth-like alien, and his teammates argue which button he should press: "Destroy Giant Cocoon" or "Attack Moth-Like Bug". Unable to decide, he mashes both, encasing Megas in a giant firebird.
    • On at least one occasion he used the stick shift to go from Drive, past Neutral and Reverse all the way to Save Jamie. (Another time he shifted to SPACE.) Coop's speedometer usually reads as a normal speedometer, but once it measured from "Slow", "Fast", "Faster", and "GOOD CRIPES!".
    • Coop's oil gauge reads from "Empty", "Needs a Little", "Almost There", "Good Enough", "No really, I'm fine", and "PLEASE STOP!"'
      • The cheese-steak sandwich Coop stuffed in there had enough oil in it to ping the gauge all the way to full.
    • The slide-knob heater goes from "Warm" to "Hot" to "DANG!"
  • Rico in The Penguins of Madagascar has an extreme Stomach of Holding and is capable of vomiting up whatever is most useful at the time.
  • In ReBoot, the character Bob uses a keytool called Glitch which has all sorts of functions and transforms into different machines in response to voice commands such as "Glitch! Zipline!" or "Glitch! Scan!" However when Bob panics, he usually just cries "Glitch... ANYTHING!" And Glitch always seems to come up with something that works. Glitch is an intelligent being in its own right, though, so it's justified.
  • Ren & Stimpy: when Ren and Stimpy are in the "House of Next Tuesday", they find a machine that will make beef jerky (unfortunately for Ren, the user must provide their own meat). they press one button to cycle through the available seasonings, and then press the same button rapidly to make their selection.
  • In The Simpsons episode "I, D'oh-Bot", Homer 'builds' a robot for Bart with one all-purpose button on the control, although the robot is actually Homer in disguise. As it turns out, the button gives him a mild electric shock when pushed.
    Bart: Why did you make it do that?
    (Bart presses the button and shocks Homer again)
    Homer: Keep my focused.
  • Space Ghost: Space Ghost's wristbands have three buttons on head arm. How many powers could he use with those again? Here's a hint, more than six. It didn't help that he usually pressed the same one or two buttons every time.
  • In one episode of Challenge of the Superfriends, Batman presses a button on his utility belt which summons the Batmobile. In a later episode, Batman presses the same button, and it projects a Bat Invisibility Ray.
  • One Tiny Toon Adventures episode had a water pump, whose control lever changed between "Lo - Med - Hi" and "Forward - Reverse" whenever the plot called for a Reverse mode or a "FULL POWER!" mode.