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File:Billions-of-buttons space-shuttle 1988.jpg

Don't worry, the directions are All There in the Manual.

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.

Truth in Television to some extent. 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 more recent times more advanced computing power has allowed designers to simplify control panels. The 'Glass Cockpit' with Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS) screens is pretty much standard kit on most airliners. 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.

Usually, of all these buttons, a few will always be used, usually in different contexts..in a bigger environment you would have more than few displays which look identical , as each can run the same menus, (perhaps there are authorised zones when comparing the captains panel to, say, the janitors panel ..)

Examples of Billions of Buttons include:

Comic Books

  • 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.


  • 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.
  • 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.
    • And parodied a second time in Airplane! 2, 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.
      • It's a light scout vehicle, so running into a superior force should be expected. As such, "report enemy sighting, then run away while jamming everything you can until out of sight" may be a standard procedure.
  • 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.
  • 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.


  • 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.
  • 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.

Live Action TV

  • The Doctor Who TARDIS console has tons of buttons and things on it, because it's actually a 6-person console which the Doctor is using by himself. 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.
  • 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 (modelled 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 coloured 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 travelling, 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.


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 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.

Video Games

  • 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).

Web Comics

Western Animation

  • 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.
  • 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.[1]
    • 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.
  • 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 the Hedgehog 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.

Real Life

  • The Space Shuttle, pictured above.
  • Many recent MIDI controllers have arrays of buttons, keys, and knobs that are completely programmable and thus unlabelled.
  • 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.
  • QWERTY keyboards. YMMV.
    • Compared to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chorded_keyboard , which were once thought likely to become commonly used, regular keyboards have lots of buttons. They're usually labelled, but there are blank keyboards available, intended to help people learn to touch-type.
  • Instruments and test equipment, like oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers etc...
  1. Old Chinese "typewriter" keyboards literally did have a button/printing die for each character. Each typewriters have multiple keyboards, each with around a thousand characters. A professional typist averages around 20wpm. The University of Sydney Rare Book collection owns a 1920s Chinese typewriter. It's about 1.5m wide and weighs several hundred kilograms.
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