In the year 1987, the United States launched the last of National Aeronautics and Space Administration's deep space probes. On board Ranger 3 is a lone astronaut, Captain William "Buck" Rogers (Gil Gerard). However, the spaceship has moved from its planned orbit, and instead of being gone a few months, it returns to Earth 504 years later. Captain Rogers is placed in a deep hibernation by forces beyond his control, and remains frozen at the controls until the year 2491. The ancient lost ship is found perfectly preserved by fighter craft of the Draconian Empire, who fire on Ranger 3, then tow it to their alien flagship, The Draconia.
After being revived, Buck meets Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) and her ship's commander, Kane (Henry Silva). Although Ardala is supposed to be on her way to Earth on a peace mission, in reality she is preparing to invade the planet, one that has long been the enemy of her race. They use Buck, who still thinks that his entire alien encounter is nothing but a dream, by sending him ahead to Earth to discover the location of a safe corridor through Earth's defenses. The ploy works because of a transmitter aboard Buck's ship that sends back messages with the corridor's location.
Buck finally realizes that he actually has travelled into the future after meeting Col. Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) and Dr. Elias Huer (Tim O'Connor), but the Earth Defense Directorate considers him to be a traitor when the transmitter is found on board Ranger 3. In an attempt to clear himself of a death sentence and execution, Buck returns to the Draconia and pretends to join Ardala and her army, in the process learning of the plans to invade Earth. Buck decides that he must stop the attack, no matter what the odds. As the man from the 20th century prepares to make his move, he is held at gunpoint by Twiki and Dr. Theopolis. Buck must prove his innocence to the two mechanoids before the attack can be launched.
The opening two-hour episode is basically the feature film Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (film) re-edited, with new footage to lead into the TV series. (Joseph Wiseman's brief appearance as King Draco was completely edited out of the broadcast.)
The broadcast version of "Awakening" was released on DVD in 2013 as an extra on the Season 2 re-release. However, it is not quite complete. The scene is missing in which Dr. Theopolis shows Buck footage of World War III in which civilization was destroyed, explains the causes of its destruction, and refers to "Anarchia" (the 25th-century name for the ruins of Chicago). This scene takes place during the 16 hours Buck spends in the room with Dr. Theopolis.